MPC Ford Pinto Update 1: Not-So-Wild Horses

Sure, it looks good now, but it’s not easy to get the Pony Express’ engine to this state!

Let’s face it: by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, engine performance had pretty much reached a new low. It was the height (depth, is more like it) of the Automotive Dark Ages and performance was not only a memory, but almost a four-letter-word to the government-overseen pollution control watchdogs. This is reflected in the quoted performance times of most cars of the era. Double-digit horsepower had become almost the norm. Where a decade before horsepower wars raged, now there was only the faintest echo of any kind of get up and go.

Ford’s erstwhile economy champion, the Pinto, was no stranger to these lackluster kinds of performance. Designed as a small, cheap-to-own and cheap-to-run econobeater from the outset, the Pinto was never going to be turning heads with blistering performance. Usually, the only blistering was the paint as it went up in one of the many joked-about rear end collision-induced fires. By 1980, the Pinto’s last year, the ponies under the hood were pretty tame, and there wasn’t any real risk of driving excitement.

For 1980, the only engine available was the 2.3L LL23 Overhead Cam I4 engine. This engine was not a real wheel-spinner, at least in its Pinto version. In ’80, this sad little mill put out only 88 hp, with a whopping 119 lb.ft of torque. This was great, so long as you weren’t hauling anything or anyone, trying to pass on the highway or tow anything. So, really, it was perfect for a single-person commuter car, which is essentially what the Pinto was trying to be. Of course, in the spirit of the times, you got the same anemic, wheezy engine in EVERY Pinto, even those with pretentions of sporting grandeur.

Perhaps the visually loudest Pintos are the Cruising Wagons, an attempt by Ford to get some of the “Street Van scene” to rub off on its otherwise beige-ly mundane little two-door wagon. By adding “Vannish” graphics, like “sunset stripes” and making the wagon into a panel delivery (i.e. blocking out the rear windows), the so very, very humble Pinto wagon could be seen as a low-cost, low-cred version of Ford’s Econoline Cruising Vans. Since the concept was a bit of a stretch anyway, using such a low-thrust mill didn’t really seem out of place. After all, it was a “cruising” wagon, not a “drag racing” wagon. Performance was never implied; nor was it delivered.

From Annual to Nightmare in 6 Years:

Anyone who knows MPC knows they were among the masters of mould re-use. In the old days, “annuals”, yearly updates to the model kits to reflect those in the real cars, were common. This meant that once a company had invested in a mould for one year of a car, they could usually get all kinds of mileage out of it, with fairly simple tweaks and mould changes. In this way, the models of the ‘70s and early ‘80s were very realistic; this is exactly how the real car companies did things!

While this sounds like a great idea, and in many ways is, it has some drawbacks for the modeller. On one hand, you could usually count on a new kit of the current year’s model. Now, why anyone (but me) would eagerly await then newest version of the Chevette, Pinto or Pacer is beyond comprehension to most, but be that as it may, it was the case. The problem was that the model companies often had to assume certain things in order to get their kits out in time to synch up with the real car. This can lead to problems when car companies make last minute changes. A perfect example is the 1978 Pacer X from AMT. There was NO Pacer X in 1978 (despite the Pacer finally getting a V-8). However, there always had been, and the body didn’t really change year-to-year, so AMT just issued the kit as it was.

Often, though, it’s not the body of the kit that fell victim to guesswork or laziness. Interior fittings, which weren’t expected to change much, often did. It is quite common on old annuals to find that seat shapes, textures and patterns which were correct at the start of the Annual’s life are not even close by the last year it was issued. Dashboards, door panels and even steering wheel shapes are all good examples of this. Of course engines could change quite a bit over the life of the car, too, and it is very common for later annual kits to have engines that are either wrong in details, or are just literally the wrong engine period.

This is what happened to MPC’s Pinto as it was revamped and reissued through the ages. By the time 1980’s Pony Express custom Pinto wagon was made, a lot of things on the outside AND the inside of the Pinto had changed. MPC figured no one would care, and so with a new front facia they issued the final version of the Pinto largely unchanged from the ’74 version.  Obviously, when they were resurrecting the mould, the folks at Round 2 also ended up resurrecting the “legacy issues” that Pony Express had had back when it was first issued. This is no slam against Round 2; having the guts to dig up and reissue ANY Pinto kit is greatly appreciated. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of work to do to this engine to make it right.

Stranger in Time:

The Pony Express is a customized Pinto Cruising Wagon, but it can be built stock. Sort of. There are actually a tonne of issues with the kit, but today I’m going to focus on just the engine.  When I first got the kit, I was excited to find it came with two engines, a V8 and a sucky I4. Most people would be excited for the 8 and toss the 4, but not me! The V8 is not a correct Pinto engine – EVER! I wanted to do it stock, so having the right I4 was important. It’s surprising how hard it is to source a correct, late ‘70s I4, actually! (Well, maybe it’s not so surprising…)

Looking at the instructions, red flags go up right away. For reasons I cannot fathom, MPC (or Round 2, I don’t know) say the stock engine is a 1200 cc. WTF? There was never a 1.2L engine in a Pinto! That’s even too sad to consider! The smallest you could ever get was the 1.6L in 1971-1973. Getting past that, though, the pathetic 2.3L looks fine at first blush. After all, it’s an I4, it’s weak-looking and it has a sad-arsed two bladed fan. The big timing cover for the OHC timing system is right up front, too, and it looks more or less right. Well, put the emphasis on LESS. As it turns out, this is pretty much not right in any way, shape or form for the 2.3L that the ’80 Pinto should have sulking in its small engine bay.

And, so it starts. The very first thing is dead wrong. This is not a 1.2L engine. I just wish I knew who to blame for that, Round 2 or MPC? Either way: SHAME!!!

At first, I didn’t want to do a tonne of research on the Pinto; I’d just finished the 1964 Fleetside, and I was a little researched-out. However, I hate to build something that’s totally wrong, so I figured I should at least check out the colours and so forth on the engine. This is when I started to notice things. Bad things. A lot of bad things. Things like shapes, and sizes and positions of components that were all wrong. With a sigh, I started to dig much deeper than I’d wanted to go. I’m still not entirely sure I have the story straight, but for anyone looking at their Pinto engine and scratching their heads, this is what I found:

First, and foremost, I am not even sure this is the 2.3L. In 1974, Pintos could get the 2.0L TL20 or the 2.3L LL23. (You want to talk about being spoiled for choice? That is the proverbial rock and a hard place right there, my friends!) The problem for us modellers, though, is trying to determine which engine MPC put in there, and thus carried through for the rest of the model’s surprisingly long life. One of the first things I noticed was that pics of ’80 Pintos that I could find didn’t have the large and very obvious filler cap on the top of the valve cover. The model kit does. From what I can tell, this is a feature of the 2.0L, not the 2.3. With a sigh, then, I concluded that I was going to have to make a 2.3L “copycat” out of the 2.0L. Oh, the things we do for love…

Looking at things more closely, it became obvious that the engine in the kit is not even close to the real thing for an ’80 Pinto. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, and to save time and frustration, I’m going to list them below in plain and simple bullet points. You can decide for yourself if you want to try and fix things on your copy of the kit, should you have one. (Why wouldn’t you, though? It’s a PINTO WAGON for goodness’ sake!)

1.) Filler Cap on Valve Cover – not present on 2.3L

2.) Alternator – on wrong side of engine

3.) Air cleaner – wrong shape, no wing nuts

4.) Intake “sleeve” – totally wrong, they breathe through a corrugated tube, not an open intake

5.) Heat Riser tube – not even close to what’s in the real car

6.) Exhaust Manifold – looks like a Dorito. What the what is it? FAIL!

Breathing Trouble:

The biggest problem with the engine seems to be the intake/exhaust system. This is a big deal, because on an engine, things like the air cleaner, intake tube and exhaust manifold are something of a big deal. They tend to be quite visible, and they’re quite visibly WRONG on the Pinto kit. So, my first goal was to cobble together an intake system that would look something like what’s actually on the Pinto in 1980. This is not easy, and I was only able to do it because my stash of weird 80’s loser cars came to my rescue. (See, love IS rewarded!)

A big source of spares for this project was the MPC 1988 Fiero GT. I have always wanted this kit, and only got one relatively recently. Again, thanks to it being an annual, it contains the original 4cyl. “Iron Duke” engine from the original ’84 Fiero 2M4 kit (which I also have). Interestingly, in the GT’s instructions, it does call the 4 an “Optional 4 cylinder Engine”. Why would you option that into a GT? Who knows? Thankfully, it has a lot of useful pats, though! Another source is the Revell Germany Kamei Escort kit. I got this at the 2018 Heritage Con show for $5! However, it had no engine, but it was an Escort for $5, so I couldn’t turn it down. Good thing, too! The air cleaner setup from it would prove invaluable! (Just as a note: I intend to make an SHO Escort of the now-engineless Kamei – watch for it in the decades to come!)

Here you see the Fiero bits, and the Kamei Escort’s air cleaner/intake. The Escort’s is the oblong one, the rest of the stuff is Fiero.

To create a corrected intake system I started by using the Fiero air cleaner, since it has two wing nuts in almost the right places. To this, I attached the “solid” part of the intake sleeve from the Escort. I used the solid part of the intake sleeve from the Pinto to make the end of the intake trunk. However, I needed a portion of corrugated “dryer hose”. This was not something either of the donor kits had in the right shape. So, off to the spares box it was! I found a piece that was perfect, but I don’t know what it was from; maybe the Citation? It doesn’t matter, because it fit nicely, and looked right. I glued all these disparate components together in the right orientation with the engine taped into the bay.

Here’s the Frankenintake all finished up! There are at least 4 kits’ worth of parts in there! JMNs eat your hearts out!

On ’80 Pintos, the intake breathes from a box on the passenger’s side fender. I needed this, too, and used the Thermac end of the Fiero’s intake. I glued this in place on the fender well and matched it all up alignment-wise. Still, it wasn’t quite right. I still needed the heat riser tube and a Thermac. I used the Thermac end of the Escort’s intake for this, since it was finely ribbed like the real heat risers. Now, there is a Thermac on the back of the Pinto’s heat riser, but I figured no one would see it, and I just left it. For a Thermac, I glued on a small piece of round plastic. I don’t even know what it was – it might have been an attachment pin or a nib from another piece!

Here’s the fender-mounted “air box”. Thanks again to the Fiero for saving the day!

With the intake done, the exhaust came next. I noticed that the Iron Duke in the Fiero GT kit had a very nice exhaust manifold. It fit up to the Pinto’s block perfectly, and so that problem was solved. The issue was getting the exhaust pipe to match up to it, and the heat riser tube, at the same time. This involved some bending and “coercion” on the original, kit-supplied exhaust pipe from the Pinto, but I was able to make it work. I did crack the pipe badly, though, and I had to use melted styrene to glue/fill it back into the correct shape.

The Fiero’s exhaust manifold fits onto the engine like a glove. It’s also wonderfully textured, like all late MPC engine parts. Bravo!

And this, my friends, is how it all goes together, well, mostly. I hadn’t fit the heat riser tube or exhaust manifold at this point.

Belt Your Engine: It’s the Law!

The other major issue with the engine was that the alternator was on the WRONG SIDE. Huh. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Pinto’s accessory belts are made specifically for this wrong-sided setup. That means I needed to scab on a new belt for the driver’s side of the engine. Again, Iron Duke to the rescue! (Of course Poncho Power saves the day! Are you really that surprised?) The belt/pulley system for the Duke had a pulley and belt I could cut off and scab onto the Pinto’s setup. I did this, and then realized I had nothing for the original pulley. However, some ’80 engines do have something on that side. I think it’s A/C, but it could be a SMOG pump. Still, not all cars have it, so I assume it’s A/C.

This is the new belt setup, before I sanded and faired in the belts. The white is Fiero, the silver, Pinto.

Thus, I decided to equip my Pinto with air conditioning. Can you even imagine how utterly pathetic such a setup would be in real life? Imagine it being hot enough to need to run the A/C on the already gutless 2.3L, and then needing to accelerate? Gack! Still, since it makes the car even LESS of a performer, I was all about it! I actually ended up using the Fiero’s A/C compressor, with the telltale “ears” trimmed off.

I also filled in the filler hole in the valve cover and sanded it in to match the grooves on the top of the cover, thus completing the conversion of the 1974 TL20 to a 1980-spec LL23. You’re welcome.

You can see from this view the filled in valve cover, and the A/C compressor beside the Fiero exhaust manifold.

Paint and Finishing:

Thankfully, painting wasn’t as hard as building up the engine. The block and oil pan were painted with Model Master Acrylic (MMA) Ford/GM Engine Block Blue. The tranny was done in MMA Aluminum. Other components were done in MMA Steel: the fan, A/C unit, Alternator and intake manifold/carb were all thusly painted. The exhaust manifold was painted with MMA Jet Exhaust and the starter and distributor were MMA Aircraft Interior Black (AIB). The oil filter was done in MMA Flat White.

The air intake system is actually rather colourful, but again some pictures contradict others. Some have a black air cleaner, others show it as silvery. I chose to do it in MMA Aluminum to add visual interest, and I did the rest of the intake trunk in AIB. To add more visual interest, I gave the air cleaner a very light wash of Citadel Nuln Oil to bring out the nuts and contours, and the coated it by hand with a semi-gloss varnish. I also semi-glossed the intake trunk’s “solid” parts, but I left the flexible “dryer hose” in flat black, so it would appear to be fabric-like.

One weird thing is the heat riser tube; on every car I’ve seen pics of, they’re ORANGE. WTF? Well, it is what it is, so I used some MMA International Orange on the heat riser, and gave it a wash like I did on the air cleaner. This really brought out the fine ribbing, and made it look fantastic. I gave it a semigloss varnish too, just to seal it all in. The belts and pulleys were done with AIB, but the pulleys were Futured to make them glossier than the “rubber” belts.

Here’s the completed intake/heat riser. You can see the Escort’s Thermac sticking up, but no one will see it once it’s installed!

All the metallic parts were given a wash in Nuln Oil. This highlights the features, and it also works into the metal shades, giving them a bit of a burnished look, and adding subtle depth. I did the same on the block; I didn’t want “dirty”, but I did want “lightly used”. For effect, I used some gold pigment/Future mix to tint the carb gold. I then used a Citadel Devlin Mud wash to add highlighting to both the carb and the exhaust manifold. The brown sets off the carb’s gold and the manifold’s jet exhaust nicely.

Here you can see the alternator on the proper side, and the slight gold tinge on the carb.

Once everything was dry, I assembled it all except the air intake system. This needs final alignment once the car’s together, so I left it unattached. Things fit well, except the alternator, which got in the way of the distributor and timing cover. So, with a bit of fiddling and trimming, I managed to get everything in where it should go.

Tight quarters! the engine was never designed to have the alternator on this side, and some reworking of the distributor was essential to a good fit.


The Pinto’s engine is totally inaccurate, and if you want a true, stock engine, then you have a lot of work ahead of you. This actually raises interesting points for judging at model shows, because if you enter a “from the box” stock build in a Stock Car category, you should technically be disqualified. After all, that engine is NOT stock for that car. However, not many judges are going to know that, so I guess it’s only a big deal if you’re me, or I’m judging your car!

I will admit that I hadn’t even considered accurizing this engine when I got the kit, but it was just soooo far off that it needed help. I had fun making all the wrongs right again, and I have a real sense of accomplishment when I look at the engine. I think it’s going to look great in the engine bay once all is said and done.

That having been said, I don’t know if too many of you out there are going to want to be bothered to accurize the motor. If not, don’t worry; just build the Pinto and have fun. However, if accuracy IS your fun, then you’ll have a double-dose of pleasure working on this little POS. Remember, we can’t blame Round 2 for this one; this is MPC’s boondoggle all the way to the bank!

Do I wish someone had thought to update the engine and make it correct? Sure. Am I glad I did it even though they didn’t? Absolutely! Unfortunately, this isn’t the only issue in the Pinto’s engine bay, but we’ll save that for another day, when I give you the lowdown on some of the other issues that Pony Express has in store! See you then!




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