Vail Daily column: Journeys in a Ford Pinto
August 7, 2015
During the 1970s, as far as I was concerned, my life was in complete disarray. I was in the middle of an ugly divorce, my kids were all over the place with my son Scott just graduating from (Budget Busting) Art Center in Pasadena, my daughter Chris was going to college in Santa Barbara and my son Kurt had spent two full years plus the rest of his life racing sailboats and was attempting to make the Olympic team in a single-handed boat called the Finn.
There was a gas shortage, real or contrived, nevertheless there were gas station lines as long as an hour. In the middle of all of this, President Carter canceled America's participation in the Olympics in Russia. For all the young men and women who had trained for years to make the team, there was no team.
I had bought a 1930 Model A Ford pickup truck from Ned Bell in Sun Valley when he said it he would be celebrating the bicentennial with a price tag of 1976. I told him he would sell it a lot quicker for 1776, and I bought it on the spot. When I took my children to Sun Valley for Christmas, I took along a tow bar to bring it back to Los Angeles to do a ground-up restoration. That winter in Sun Valley there was almost no snow anywhere. Bill Janss only had one chairlift running and that was at the bottom of Warm Springs.
With no snow on Baldy, one day the kids and I took a picnic lunch and hiked up to Roundhouse and sat there having a great time, probably because we were the only four people on Baldy that day.
When I got the pickup truck back to Hermosa Beach I turned it over to a good friend of mine who owned a body repair shop and told him there was no deadline on the restoration and his mechanics could work on it during their downtime. He agreed to that and I got the complete restoration done for minimum wages.
I kept the truck for three or four years and then sold it to a friend of mine in Seattle. In one day, Laurie and I rented a trailer, put the truck on it and towed it to Seattle.
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The gasoline shortage could have been disastrous for a camera crew if I didn't take it seriously. What if I had sent somebody to Salt Lake City and all of the gas stations were empty en route?
I had the backseats taken out of the Pinto station wagon and installed auxiliary tanks so that a cameramen could leave Los Angeles and drive all the way to Salt Lake City without ever stopping. Of course, you had to make the trip without having a drink of water, a Pepsi-Cola or a bottle of beer. Unfortunately, there was a slight leak in the installation and whoever used it had to drive with at least two windows wide open or they would get nauseous.
By the time the crew had the Ford Pinto virtually worn out, I gave it to my daughter, taught her how to drive it and she kept it running until she went away to college. Then it was my son Kurt's chance and he had almost no mechanical ability to repair a car. He had gone to San Francisco for a sailboat race, towing his Laser. With no mechanical knowledge whatsoever he allowed the engine to run out of oil and burned it up. I told him to ask a sailor friend to tow it back to Los Angeles by tying a rope to an automobile tire. From the automobile tire you tie another rope to the towing automobile.
Kurt missed a couple of days of school getting the station wagon back to Hermosa Beach while I looked around for a replacement engine. A brand-new engine for that Pinto was almost $800, but one from a wrecked Pinto was only $100, but I had to make sure the impact wrecking the Pinto had to have been behind the steering wheel. By the time I found one, I drove to the San Pedro wrecking yard. They had the engine out of the wrecked car and ready to load on my trailer. They also found two mechanics who would install it for $80.
By the time I picked up the engine and drove it to where the Ford Pinto was being fixed, they already had the engine out of the Pinto, and by noon of the next day it was all done and ready to pick up.
During the life of that cheap station wagon, my drivers probably made at least 300 trips from Hermosa Beach to the film labs in Hollywood, not to mention the many trips to the mountains and all the driving the kids did in it. That was an amazing car.
All this was going on during the Ford Pinto crisis when the government had declared that the cars were too dangerous to drive because of where the gas tanks were. All I did was add extra gas storage so that if there ever was a wreck it would have been a big conflagration.
During that time I signed a contract with Hobie to produce a film about his Hobie 14- and 16-foot catamarans as well as one for Hoyle Schweitzer, who had invented the windsurfer.
I put a motor on one hull and replaced the canvas trampoline on one of the catamarans with a sheet of plywood and we had a good camera boat. Don drove that Pinto and the trailer all the way to New Orleans and back to film a backcountry trip on windsurfers.
At almost the same time the footage Don got in New Orleans arrived, some footage also arrived from the North Shore of Maui, Hawaii. It was the first footage I'd ever seen of short boards in big waves at Hookipa.
I got so excited about the footage, I called my contact at "Good Morning America" and three days later I was in New York City showing the footage. Prior to leaving Hermosa Beach however, I called Hoyle Schweitzer and said if I got the windsurfer on "Good Morning America" that should be worth at least two or three windsurfers. He agreed and it was a very profitable trip. Needless to say, I did not drive the Ford Pinto from Hermosa Beach to show the film in New York.
I did keep two of the windsurfers so I would have somebody to go sailing with me at San Pedro.
The entire windsurfing addiction ended up with Laurie and I buying a condominium on the North Shore of Maui where I managed to windsurf for the next 12 years.
As I look back at the lifespan of the various automobiles that I have owned in my life, each one of them has almost 100,000 miles or more on them and every one of those miles has a memory of some kind or the other. Maybe someday I will have time to sit down and write a book about them, but in the meantime the memories of them are just floating around in my brain somewhere.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller's stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.
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