Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Dale Jacobson can’t be sure, but he figures he has at least one claim to fame in life.
“I think I’m the only guy crazy enough to rotisserie restore a Pinto,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I actually did have it up on a rotisserie.”
He might have another claim to fame as well — the nicest, most pristine 1977 Ford Cruising Wagon in existence. His groovy wagon is almost as nice inside and out as it was when the Owatonna, Minn., resident ordered it new back in late 1976.
“It was delivered in March about a week and a half late because a snowstorm on the East Coast shut the plant down for a couple of days. The build quality when I took the car apart reflected the fact that they were behind. The build quality was bad even for Pinto standards,” he chuckles. “Why did I buy it? Well, my ‘67 Mustang that I had in high school was dying – rustwise. So I started looking around at what was available. I was looking at the Chevys and looking at the AMCs, and then I saw the brochure for this little Pinto wagon, with all the stripes. I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ So I wound up placing an order for it.”
Jacobson loved his little wagon from the start and used it as primary transportation for several years. The trouble was, his wife Barbara didn’t have the same enduring attachment to the car as he did. “In the ‘80s my wife didn’t like the car anymore because in the ‘80s the ‘70s were not cool. So she refused to be seen in it. She wanted me to sell and get some money for it, but I wasn’t ready to part with it yet.”
Jacobson admits that what he did next was a little kooky – even by his standards. He took the car off the road, put it in mothballs, then carefully planned out a glorious second life for the car some day down the line. “It was in really good shape and I just couldn’t get rid of it. So instead I took the car partially apart, took the interior pieces and wrapped them in heavy duty plastic contractor bags, and stored everything so mice wouldn’t get in it. The car itself, I put it up on blocks and threw a tarp over it so the mice wouldn’t get in it, and forgot I owned it for the next 30 years. My plan was, ‘Some day I’m gonna restore it.’
“Well, I finally got all the parts together and about three years ago I decided, it’s time.”
Ford’s ‘Van-Tastic’ Wagon
If you dug the custom van craze of the 1970s, but either didn’t have the room or money for a family van — or were scared off by the fuel economy of a van in the years immediately following the gas shortage — Ford had a better idea for you! FoMoCo brass called it the Cruising Wagon, and it was part shag wagon, part panel delivery, and part economy car all rolled up into one little rainbow runabout. The mag wheels, rear bubble window and wacky striping made it the funkiest Pinto Ford had ever produced and one of the most unique-looking offerings from any car builder of any era.
The Cruising Wagon was styled along the lines of the Econoline Cruising Van, aimed at youthful buyers. It included a front spoiler, blanked rear quarters with glass portholes, styled wheels, Sports Rallye equipment, and a carpeted rear section. Buyers could get either a gas-sipping 2.3-liter (140-cid) four-cylinder, or a 2.8-liter (170.8-cid) V-6 with 93 hp.
By 1977, there were no true muscle cars left on the market, there were a host of cars that tried to look the part, or at least look cool. The Cruising Wagon was an attempt to snag buyers who may have been looking for something that looked sporty and fun to drive, had some room to haul some stuff, and yet was still cheap on gas. If it was meant to help curb the steady decline in Pinto sales from a highwater mark of 544,209 in 1974, it failed, as production totals sagged to just 225,097 in ’77. Of those, only 10,029 were Cruising Wagons. The following year, only 5,329 CWs were built. After 1979, Ford had given up on the idea.
Jacobson has good reason to believe his car is exceedingly unusual, even by Cruising Wagon standards. It is one the few that was equipped with the V-6. The Deluxe Stripe Package was also not a common choice. A survivor with both is a bit of a dodo bird in Pinto circles. “Nine-some percent of them were four-cylinders,” he says. “The Marti Report … Pinto, Cruising Wagon, V-6 with Deluxe tape … we’re figuring around 50 of them in were built in ’77. We don’t have a definite number, but if you use the percentages, you get around 50.
“It’s a $3,500 Pinto wagon, Cruising Wagon [option] … The V-6 was 306 bucks, and with that you had to get the automatic transmission. Manual transmission was not available. So it’s got automatic, power steering, power brakes. The engine option was expensive on a Pinto. That’s why not many of them were made. I remember the dealer arguing with me and telling me, ‘You need FM!’ Remember, this is 1977. I told him, ‘Why would I want FM? That’s just elevator music and farm reports.’ Instead I went AM/8-track [laughs]. But I like it now, and everything works. Oh, and I wanted the nice wheels. I ordered them because it was the ‘70s, you had to have mag wheels. The only thing I wish I had ordered was A/C. I was young at the time and I didn’t get the A/C.”
Ford kept tweaking its popular compact during its decade-long run from 1971-’80, and 1977 was no different. Revised front and rear styling hit Ford’s subcompact, offered again in two-door sedan, “three-door” Runabout and station wagon form. Up front was a new “soft” nose with sloping hood and flexible fender extension and store deflector assembly. The new horizontal-bar Crosshatch grille, made of rigid plastic, tilted backward. Twin vertical rectangular park/signal lamps stood on each side of the bright grille, with recessed round headlamps at the outside. Soft urethane headlamp housings were taller than before, but the grille itself was narrower. As in the previous design. ‘Ford’ letters stood above the grille. At the rear of the two-door sedan and three-door Runabout were new, larger horizontal dual-lens taillamps. New extruded anodized aluminum bumpers went on the front and rear. New body colors were added, and a new vinyl roof grain was available. Runabouts had a new optional all-glass third door. Inside was new cloth trim, optional on the base high-back bucket seats. A new lower (2.73:1) rear axle ratio went with the standard OHC 140-cid (2.3-liter) four-cylinder engine, which hooked up to a wide-ratio four-speed manual gearbox. The low-budget Pony came with rack-and-pinion steering, front disc brakes, all-vinyl or cloth/vinyl high-back front bucket seats, mini-console, color-keyed carpeting, and argent hubcaps. The base two-door sedan included a color-keyed instrument panel and steering wheel, bright backlight trim, plus bright drip and belt moldings. Runabouts had a fold-down rear seat, rear liftgate, and rubber mat on the loaded floor. All models except the Pony could have a 170.8-cid (2.8-liter) V-6 instead of the four. Pinto got a shorter manual-transmission shift lever to speed up gear-changes. A new Sports option included a tachometer, ammeter and temperature gauge, new soft-rim spots steering wheel, front stabilizer bar, higher-rate springs and higher axle ratio.
The Pinto Rides Again
After patiently waiting for 30 years to crawl by, Jacobson wasn’t going to take any short cuts when it came to making his Cruising Wagon “like new” again. He hadn’t sat on the car for so long to settle for anything less than the best he could make it.
“When I started out, I sandblasted everything, stripped everything. The engine itself only has 40-some-thousand [miles] so I just tore it apart and put new seals and gaskets in it. Rust-wise, she was perfect. It was rust-free. I had been hit once, in the left front corner, and immediately went to the junk yard and purchased new front fenders and stuff for, and put them away in wrappers, too. After I stripped it, painted it silver, painted it with clear, then sanded it with 1,000-grit.”
The biggest challenges Jacobson faced during the remake were two-fold: replicating the stripes, and tracking down parts he hoped to replace.
“Before I took the stripes off it I had done a rubbing,” he says. “I used a pounce wheel, then after sanding with 1,000-grit I hung my papers back on there and used carpenter’s chalk and an old sock and that transferred through the holes then I could lay out my stripe pattern. It took about a week to put the stripes back on it. I took some of the old stripe material and went to a local jobber and matched the stripes. These cars did come with a more basic stripe pattern, I call it the ‘Pepsi swish.’ If you wanted the Deluxe stripes, you had to go with silver. That was the only color for the Deluxe stripes.
“The disassemble and reassemble was easy, the Devil was in the parts. I always say Ford forget they made them, the junkyards crushed them out and the aftermarket doesn’t know they exist. There actually is a limited number of aftermarket parts – like the window gaskets are available, the weather stripping is available … But some of the harder parts, no, they are just not out there. Like tires, you cannot get raised white letter tires the right size. They don’t exist, not even Coker. [The current tires] are the second set of tires I ever bought for the car and they probably from about 1980. I put these tires on just for show, they are old bias-play and they are like a rock. I got other tires and wheels when I want to drive it.”
Jacobson noted that the interior is so original that the only thing he had to replace was the headliner. Everything else came with the car, including the carpet. “It’s even got the original floor mats,” he says. “When I bought the car, the dealer said, ‘You need floor mats for this car, so he threw in a set of vintage Pinto OEM floor mats. Do you know how rare those things are these days? [laughs]”
There were also a few modifications that Jacobson made in his younger days that he had to reconcile before he could make the car “new” again. “There was some stuff that everybody did back in the ‘80s that I had to change back. I took the catalytic converter off. I had chiseled out the flipper door so I could run regular gas. And I put a little light in the back when I was dating my wife – for obvious reasons [laughs].”
There was also minor scar in the car that upset Jacobson 30 years ago, but that he decided to replicate anyway. It was the only way in his mind to make the car exactly like it was when he first got it. “When I bought it I was young and still living at home yet and sharing garage with my mom,” he recalled. “The car was like a week old and she opened the door on her ‘68 Bel Air and took a chunk out of the purple stripe! I was so upset at the time, I couldn’t believe it … But when I restored the car, I took a razor blade and peeled off the chunk that was missing and I gave it to her.”
If Jacobson was looking to have people to talk to and a car that gets attention at shows, then it’s been mission accomplished. The spectacularly preserved Cruising Wagon gets reactions from almost everybody that passes by when he parks at weekend car gatherings.
“People walk up and say, ‘That’s a cool Vega!’ I have to correct them in a hurry,” he jokes. “People always have something to say. Some of my friends at FordPinto.com (The Pinto Car Club of America) say, ‘You could take that to Barrett-Jackson and set a new world record for Pintos.’ Yeah, but then I wouldn’t own it anymore. I can’t have that. My daughter has officially declared this a family heirloom, never to be traded or sold. It was our honeymoon car! I could never get rid of it.”
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