The 1970’s saw the whole automotive world stood on its collective ear. A severe gas shortage, poorly-thought out and implemented government-mandated pollution control regulations and spiraling costs all saw the demise of the not only the muscle car, but also the general slide into subsistence of all the motoring public of North America. It was a veritable famine for anyone who took any pride in their vehicles or found joy in driving.
The 1960s and early 1970s were a decade in which real power and interesting styling ruled. Some of the most storied names in automotive history, such as Charger, Challenger, GTO and Chevelle, were born and died in this glorious period that many people consider the zenith of automotive history. By the mid ‘70s, though, it was a different story, and some of the most notorious names in all of auto-dom such as Vega, Pacer, Gremlin, Pinto and Volare came to be. These were, at the time, such a step backwards in terms of performance, styling, size and, ironically, even efficiency, that this period has become known as the “Automotive Dark Ages”.
However, life continued, and like wolves at a salad bar, all people could do was make the best of what they had. This lead to one of the most interesting periods of automotive marketing. How can you make your econobox look better, sexier and more powerful than your rival’s nearly identical one? With legitimate performance mods off the table, all car companies could do was to try and outdo each other in terms of visual appearance packages. Thus, instead of quarter mile times and engine displacements, the auto manufacturers did battle with ever-gaudier striping, paint and graphics packages.
Some of these have withstood the test of time. The Trans Am’s “screaming chicken” is a cultural icon. However, the overwrought (and horribly copycat) “psychedelic snake” of the Cobra II and aviation-inspired “Arrow Jet” package have largely been forgotten, and with good reason. However, the Big 3.5 (Hey, AMC was trying, man… give ‘em a break!) weren’t worried about the aftertaste; they were living in the moment trying to create something that would shift a few more otherwise uninspiring beaters onto a weary and hope-devoid public.
One of the best examples of this was Ford’s brilliant idea to jump onto the Street Van craze. Sure, Dodge had Street Vans too, but Ford had the idea to extend the “Cruising Van” concept to the realm of the humble station wagon. They created the first “mini van”, and they did it with the Pinto station wagon.
Yep, the Pinto. While the “runabout” version was well-known for its oh-so-explosive “tap me on the bum and up I go” (Get your mind OUT of the gutter, you perverts!) propensity for pyrotechnics, the Pinto Wagon was a much better and safer car. Well, it was safer. It was also blessed with much more available side area than a runabout, perfect for loads of stripes or whatever else. So, with that in mind, Ford introduced the Cruising Wagon, a Pinto wagon with all the time-appropriate goodies like porthole windows, blacked out trim, kinda-slick wheels and of course, the de rigeur “sunset” striping. It’s hard to say if Ford was onto something or not. They were the first, and only, car company to offer such a product, but they offered it for several years running, so they thought they had SOMETHING at least.
Despite its bad reputation for incendiary behaviour, the Pinto was a good seller, and given that it was a natural thing for model car companies in the 1970s to make ‘annual’ kits of everyday cars, it’s no surprise that there were a lot of different Pinto kits made. The bulk of these were made by AMT and MPC. Nowadays, these are very rare kits. For a long time, no one really wanted a Pinto kit, and those that got built likely (and ironically) were largely destroyed by firecracker-fuelled explosions. (Just like the real thing, only smaller!) Thus, for the last few years at least, anyone who actually wanted a Pinto kit was looking to pay a very hefty price on EBay or at model shows.
Well, thank goodness for Round 2! This company, like the good Dr. Frankenstein himself, has seen fit to apply all its efforts to raising the long lost and dead. First, there was the MPC Pacer and Gremlin, then the AMT Gremlin, and more recently some of MPC’s vans have been resurrected. To date, though, their greatest achievement in the field of “loser car rejuvenation” has to be the MPC 1980 annual kit of the Pinto Cruising Wagon.
So, grow some chest hair, a Fu-man-chu moustache and strap on your tight jeans and rayon shirt. Let’s step back in time and see what MPC had to offer its Pinto-starved public at the turn of the decade. Get ready for all the Cruisin’ Action you can handle. Get ready… for Pony Express!
If it’s one thing you have to give Round 2, it’s this: They KNOW how important the retro box is to selling a repopped kit. While slightly modified, the Pony Express’ box is, for all intents and purposes, the same as it was when the kit first came out in 1980. And that, my friends, can only be seen to be understood!
It was customary for MPC to issue some of their annual kits as customs. The Wild Breed Mustang, Bad Company Dodge van and, of course, the Bear Bait Chevette are all examples of this. For 1980, the theme at MPC in fact seemed to be “customs only”, and the Pinto was no exception. Thus, the world was introduced to a customized Cruising Wagon going by the name Pony Express.
This box, like its brethren, is just wild. It is everything wrong, and oh-so-right, about the times in which it was first produced. It is tasteless, gaudy, overblown, maybe a bit juvenile and dripping with so much scale machismo that it could even maybe be considered a tad homoerotic. This is not helped by the somewhat bedraggled or spent-looking grey horse head on the logo, nor the flaming stallions that adorn the Pinto’s flanks.
Everything you need is on this box. There are lots of different fonts, there’s a beautifully fading “sunset” theme to the “Pony” writing and there’s that horse head. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but just look at it. Is it high? Has it been out all night “cruising”? It seems to be panting as if after a long run (of shame?), but it also looks hung over and maybe just a bit glassy-eyed. It’s just about ready for the glue factory (or a restraining order, it’s hard to say), and in that respect, it serves the mood of the kit amazingly well. It is the quintessential “Sweaty Man Horse”, with all the uncomfortable implications that entails, for both horse and car.
Of course, the centre of the box IS Pony Express. Look at it. Forget that it’s a woefully underpowered econobeater station wagon. Forget that it has a 2.3L four cylinder under that hood. Forget that it will barely make it up hills with more than a few bags of groceries in the cargo area. LOOK AT IT! It has lettered tires, “tough” alloy wheels, blackout trim grille and mirrors, porthole side windows and enough striping to put a candy cane factory to shame. Of course, that might not be enough, thought MPC. I can hear them brainstorming now: “What else can we do, I mean, it’s just a Pinto Cruising Wagon… I know, we’ll add an utterly absurd air dam, a backwards spoiler and a CB aerial! Kids will love it!”
To top it off, though, to really make it pop, the folks at MPC had to think of a theme, like they did for all their customs. It only seemed natural to take the Pinto’s “pony” theme and extend it to create a horse motif for the model. What could be more macho than combining rearing stallions with flames? Yeah, not much, that’s right! So, behold the “blazing Blazer Horse” on the side. Still, as I mentioned earlier, all the great ones (and a lot of lesser ones) had hood graphics. You couldn’t be a serious custom in the ‘70s and ‘80s without hood graphics… So, MPC adorned the hood with a… well… yeah.
The hood appears to have some kind of weird many-antlered moose or maybe a potted plant of some kind on it. Is it some weird Kabbalistic emblem? Maybe it’s supposed to be, well… heck, it’s really hard to tell, at first look, what it is. Of course, it’s actually a flaming horse head seen from above. Not at all trying to muscle in on a certain flaming bird, this outcast from The Godfather eschews colour and detail for vague shape and a tough, super-macho mostly-blackness.
With all this awesomeness going on, it’s easy to miss the real nugget on the box. Look at the stock example in the top left corner. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about! Unlike some of MPC’s other customs, the Pony Express can also be built as a stock Cruising Wagon. MPC really did know how to give people what they wanted.
Like all MPC boxes, the action just flows over to the sides of the box. On one side is the traditional MPC “full size” side elevation. I love this. I wish all car kit makers still did this. It’s great to see just how big (or small) the kit is going to be. The other side of the box shows all kinds of great features, including a rear three-quarter view of the completed Pony Express, with callouts to all the awesomeness. Here you find out that you get a roof porthole and even full louvres, which were an actual part of the Cruising Wagon package. You can also see the odd backwards spoiler and silly air dam. Interestingly, the kit comes with two full engines, one custom V8 (that I can’t understand how it would fit under the hood) and something else in the background. That something else is the Pinto’s mighty 2.3L inline four. Sure, it sounds wimpy (and it is), but it’s essential if you want to do the car stock. Even better, you can even build Pony Express as a standard wagon!
The box also uses the MPC “yellow circle” to announce that the kit has pre-printed vinyl tires. This is a good trend. For a long time, we’ve seen tires in kits with NO letters, due to legal wrangling. However, this new Pony Express not only comes with lettered tires, you don’t even have to paint the letters yourself! Is life good or what!
Of course, just like with people, it’s what’s inside that counts. So, let’s pop the top on this Pony and see what awaits!
On the box it says that the kit is moulded in silver. Well, Bad Company said that it was moulded in black, but mine was white. All the Round 2s thus far have been white. Well, this time, the box was right! Just like Bear Bait, the Silver Bullet Omni and the Mustang SVO that I have, Pony Express is indeed moulded in silver. On one hand, that’s a letdown. It will make doing the car white that much harder. However, overall, I’m very happy it’s silver. There’s a certain vintage “MPC swirly plastic rush” that you get just looking at Pony Express, and a white repop would not have captured it at all. Nice work Round 2!
There are several bags of parts in the box. One contains the body and chassis, one a plated rack with the wheels and some inappropriately chromed engine bits, and two bags of silver parts. In the great MPC tradition, there are just semi-sprues thrown willy-nilly into some bags, ensuring that a lot of pieces will fall off. There are also two red clear tail lights and a separately wrapped set of windows, and they include the bubble top and the two portholes.
Overall, the feel is just about perfectly original MPC as you can get. Except, there’s one detail that Round 2 has managed to bung up. It’s hard to believe it, but they completely missed out on one key aspect of the true, the LEGIT, MPC experience.
Yep, if you’ve ever owned original MPCs, you know it was a crap shoot opening that box. Had the oddly solid yet chemically corrosive tires somehow managed to make their way to the window glass? How bad would it be? Would the window’s scar be a simple tread mark, or would the tire have been sitting for a long time, melting its way into the window so deeply that once it was removed the window would appear as a freeze frame from a wet weather tire commercial? It was really exhilarating, that gut-wrenching anticipation. It was like the sprue version of Russian roulette.
Well, thanks to something called “Quality Control” and some kind of “learning from mistakes” (Yeah, who does THAT?), Round 2 completely pulls the rug out of us on this front. Firstly, the windows are, as I said, separately bagged. That’s not how MPC rolled. Then, get this, they actually BAG the tires, and NOT in with the windows! They’re in their own separate bag! For the love of…
In case you missed it, that’s sarcasm. What’s not sarcasm is this: These tires are BEAUTIFUL. They are light years ahead of ANY I’ve seen on a non-Japanese car kit. EVER. They are soft and beautifully sheened, and are not made of the hard-shiny plastic/vinyl/whatever that old kit tires are. They look like real tires. Get this: there’s no seam on them. That’s right, you read that correctly. The tires are perfectly seamless, so no sanding is needed! Also, the lettering on them is very small, very fine and extremely well done. Soft, pliable, seamless and pre-lettered: This is Tire Nirvana. (I just hope the lettering will take up to the application of some Ice Wax for shining purposes. That’ll be a nerve-wracking test!)
So, Round 2 has proven they can re-engineer things beautifully when given the chance. However, it doesn’t look like they did much to the kit itself. That’s okay, though, because in truth, the kit looks good. It’s all typical MPC. Let’s run the checklist now:
1.) A solid engine with nice separate accessories, good texturing and surface detail? Check.
2.) Nicely done “carpet” detail on the interior bucket floor? Check.
3.) Good seat texturing giving the illusion of depth/softness as required? Check.
4.) Detailed door panels for the interior? Check.
5.) Proper lettering and badging? Check.
6.) Good attention to providing the proper options for the stock version? Check.
Of course, the parts are a bit loose in the bags, and that’s okay. My only worry is that there was a mis-seal on the top of one of my bags, and a piece had started to sneak out. There was nothing loose in the box, but it does make me a bit worried I’ve got everything. However, if there’s one thing Round 2 is great for, it’s Customer Service, and if there’s a problem, I’ve got no worries they’ll make it right!
Overall, the moulding on the kit looks really good. There’s less flash on it than there would have been on the original, and unlike Bad Company which has heavy body seams and what looks like misalignment, the Pony Express looks nice and clean on that front. The sport steering wheel, with its lightening holes , is finely moulded, and the dash looks good too. There’s not a lot of detail on the engine bay fender wells, but there’s a few wires. The Pinto’s engine bay was NOT a busy place anyway. The glass looks clear and the chrome is very bright. Of course, most of the chromed pieces wouldn’t be chrome, but Easy Off can take care of that!
What’s truly cool is that the body comes with the very thin pillars of the conventional wagon intact! You can build it stock, both as a Cruising Wagon and as a conventional grocery getter! To make the Cruising Wagon, you have to cut this pillar out, and glue on the side panels that also hold the porthole bubbles. Unfortunately, as cool as that is, there’s an issue. On a real Cruising Wagon, there’s a solid, and carpeted, panel in the rear window area. On this model, you’ll look in and see the windows, and that’s plain wrong. Still, that’s the price you pay to get both a normal and Cruising Wagon. The one silver lining is that, with the stock Cruising Wagon louvres on the back window, you won’t be able to see in and this defect won’t detract anywhere nearly as much from the finished package as it could have.
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions are just like almost every other MPC kit I’ve ever built. They are fairly clear and well-drawn, and there shouldn’t be much of a problem building the Pony Express. There are a few minor changes that Round 2 have made, adding a few notes about colours here and there, and that’s appreciated. There are, in typical fashion, a few custom items that are shown, but not clearly indicated is WHERE they actually go. No worries, that’s what imagination is for, right? That’s another good reason to build it stock.
One thing that did make me laugh was that the instructions call out the inline 4 as a 1200cc unit. Yes, the Pinto’s engine was small, but not THAT small. Heck, my dad’s 1989 Escort had a 1.9! The real answer is 2301cc, or 2.3L. Interestingly enough, that’s the only engine available in 1980, and the brochure doesn’t even give the horsepower and torque rating. This is likely because it was somewhere around 90 horses and 119 lb.ft of torque. It has to be a Cruising Wagon; you sure can’t race it with numbers like that!
The decals are another area where Round 2 Really brings it strong. They are nicely printed, completely in register (far better than many MPC originals, like on Gold Rush), shiny and have minimal decal film. I’ve not yet used Round 2 decals, but they look fantastic, and that’s half the battle right there. One thing though; while the majority of the stripes are the right colour, seem to be the right width and are correct in number, the bottom colour is a bone of contention.
I have seen pictures of real Cruising Wagons with the bottom stripe much closer to purple than to the brown given on this model. In the 1980 brochure, though, the big image of a Yellow Cruising Wagon has the bottom strip in brown. I’ve also seen a nicely done white Cruising Wagon where the bottom strip is red. The problem here is determining what’s right, what’s real and what changed. Usually, brochures are known to be wrong. It’s likely that Ford could have changed the colour of the bottom stripe from brown to purple, despite what’s in the catalogue. There are several different variants of the black part behind the side windows too, it seems. There’s also a chance that the stripes varied depending on the car’s actual body colour. This seems unlikely as it would be expensive, but then again, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, this level of expense was common on heavily decalled cars.
Really, though, it’s a minor quibble. You’ve got nice Sunset Stripes that are brand new, bright and likely to work. If you’re a Pinto Purist and they’re wrong, you can go make your own. If it’s going to keep you up at night, just send me your spare Pony Expresses, so you don’t have to worry about it. The real problem is trying to figure out what colours you could get the Cruising Wagon in. It seems like you could get them in silver, white, yellow and red, at least. There’s a non-decalled one in Bittersweet in the brochure, and it’s intimated that ANY colour interior and exterior combo could be had. If anyone knows, or has proof of colour combos, please let me know!
I love loser cars. I also love MPC. How can I not? They produced the most varied line of everyday loser cars of any maker, and they did it well. Many of their kits are very rare, simply because no one wanted one at the time. Now, these losers command big bucks on the second hand market. I’ve been lucky. I’ve gotten a hold of a lot of MPC kits in the past few years. Cavalier, Omni, SVO, Dodge D50, Beretta (as an AMT) and Chevette are some of the nameplates I’ve been lucky enough to add to my stable. However, Pacers, Gremlins and Pintos were out of reach. That was until Round 2 came along.
Being able to get a hold of the Pony Express is a great, great feeling. It’s not the end of a journey, but it’s a definite milestone. That Round 2 thought enough to bring it out at all is awesome, and that they did as good a job as they did is even better. I love that this is the 1980-style of Pinto. I find them the ugliest and most pathetic looking of all. Since all the earlier moulds would likely have been destroyed to make this annual, the chances of ever seeing an earlier Pinto kit are low, but that’s fine with me.
The Pony Express is a retro rush of the first order, and the new touches from Round 2 just put it over the top. However, at its heart, it’s still an MPC kit. That means that it is not going to be the best one to give to a beginner. Like all MPCs, I am pretty certain that Pony Express is going to be the one doing the riding if a modeller gets lazy or careless. For those with only limited experience, the iffy fits and need-for-wangling that characterize the assembly of any MPC kit will likely prove to be too much of a frustration. However, for old hands or those with moderate experience and a lot of patience, I can see Pony Express building up very nicely.
Round 2 has given us all a chance to relive one of the worst periods in automotive history, but one of the most creative ones in car modelling! If you like retro modelling, automotive losers, Pintos, horrifyingly kitschy customs or any combination of the above, then you owe it to yourself to get this kit. I normally don’t say things like this, but support this release and send the message to Round 2 that we love our losers. Who knows what travesty they might resurrect next! I can hardly wait!