The Ford Pinto isn’t exactly a bright spot in the Blue Oval’s history books. A frequent visitor on “Worst Cars of the 20th Century”, the Pinto was also deeply unsafe, even by the less-than-stringent standards of the 1970s: a design flaw with its fuel tank meant that even low speed impacts to the rear of the car could cause it to rupture and cause catastrophic, fast-spreading fires. That, combined with the tendency for the Pinto’s doors to jam shut, meant that even minor accidents could be fatal. Officially, 27 losses of life were linked to the problem, though some tallies are much higher. Worse still, following a government investigation on the part of the NHTSA, it was discovered that Ford had been made aware of it before the Pinto had entered production, and deduced that the cost of paying legal fees would be less than implementing proper safety features.
With that sordid story in mind, perhaps it rings of damningly faint praise to say that the Chevrolet Vega was a far better car, though it’s not like it was without its own serious issues, and ultimately never mounted a credible offense against the imports that dominated the compact segment. Much of the blame for that can be laid upon the Vega’s problematic engine: an aluminum block was pretty nifty at the time, but a lack of familiarity with the technology meant that it was prone to distorting when overheated. Naturally, the Vega’s motor was lacking significantly in terms of cooling capacity, meaning catastrophic engine failures were worryingly regular. Combined with the car’s incredibly flimsy, rust-prone sheet metal, and it's an absolute miracle that there are any examples on the road today.
The following 20 entries on this list show that its possible to shake off a shameful past, often with little more than a surplus of horsepower.
18 Ed Bruce’s “Darth Vega”
With an appearance that checks off the list of drag car stereotypes with an almost gleeful lack of restraint (Towering cowled hood! Weld Aluma Star wheels! Mickey Thompson rear tires!) perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that Ed Bruce’s 1974 Ford Vega, dubbed “Darth Vega” thanks to its glossy black paint job, is capable of a 9 second quarter-mile run. Darth’s beastly heart is a 454 Chevrolet V8, bored out to a colossal 489 ci and fitted with Edelbrock RPM heads, an MSD 6AL ignition system, and a C&R Racing aluminum radiator, among a laundry list of other goodies. Power lies somewhere around 600 hp, sent to the rear axle through the obligatory Powerglide transmission.
17 Woody’s Hot Rodz Chevrolet “Jega”
This aggressively yellow 1971 Chevrolet Vega was built on commission for mail-order aftermarket supplier Jegs by Indiana-based garage Woody’s Hot Rodz.
Supposedly inspired by a Hot Wheels car, the “Jega” was meant to pull double time on both the track and road.
To that end, it now rides on an Art Morrison Max G full-frame chassis with double adjustable Viking suspension, allowing for far more nuanced, sharp handling than the stock car and a huge boost in rigidity, an asset when you’re dealing with a motor as potent as a 454 ci Chevrolet LSX. Power comes in at a stout 620 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque.
16 Kenny Snow’s Chevrolet Vega GT wagon
Resplendent in canary-yellow paintwork, this 1972 Vega is one of the fastest Chevy wagons in the country. Constructed around a custom tube frame chassis, essentially a requirement for high-end drag cars like this, and powered by a 427 ci small block, this steroid-laden gerbil of a machine can run the quarter-mile in 9.40 seconds at over 136 MPH. Transmission is a two-speed Powerglide prepped by Remac Transmissions and fitted with fortified internals from ATI Performance Products. Snow, who resides in California, has won a fair share of regional wins, including class victories at the NMCA West 3rd Annual Nitto Street Car Nationals and the Fontana Summit Series Race.
15 Shane McAlary’s Chevrolet Vega “Blackbird”
Street Outlaws star Shane McAlary is no stranger to high speed or, indeed, high speed collisions. The “Blackbird” Vega in the image above reduced to a twisted hulk during a mishap at Bristol Dragway last September, which also left McAlary with a severe concussion.
The fact that it returned in the form of a brand-new car in just nine-months is pretty impressive, especially considering the depth of the engineering in the build.
Underpinned by a tube-frame chassis, the undisputed star of this build isn’t its driver, but the monstrous tangle of piping in front of the firewall. Based on a Gen-1 small block, the V8 is force-fed monstrous amounts of boost courtesy of an F-3R-121 ProCharger, bringing total output to somewhere north of 2,000 hp.
14 Chevrolet Vega Yenko Stinger
If you’re at all familiar with the Yenko name, you might be surprised to find it attached to an ill-remembered compact car. For the uninitiated, Yenko Chevrolet was a Pennsylvania-based dealership that made a name for itself with a wide selection of customized muscle cars with ludicrous power outputs.
In a bid to cash in on the Vega’s lightweight and (relatively) sophisticated rear suspension layout, comprised of a live axle riding on a four-link coil-spring setup, Yenko convinced Chevrolet to build a batch of turbocharged engines.
They accepted, under the condition that the Schwitzer turbocharger is fitted at the dealership. However, Yenko managed to pass that responsibility onto the owner after it was revealed that the EPA required a 50,000-mile durability test for any exhaust modifications. The Yenko’s differential in performance over stock made the work worth it, mind you: power was upped from 110 to 155 hp, enough to cut almost four seconds from the Vega’s 19 second quarter-mile time.
13 Chevrolet Vega Wagon with a Vortec 4200
A heavy-duty inline-six meant for SUV applications doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the drag strip, but the Vortec’s rugged construction makes it ideally suited for all manner of forced-induction shenanigans. Mind you, for now, this Vega-bound 4200 unit is staying naturally aspirated: 256 horsepower and 252 lb-ft of torque isn’t a huge amount, especially not by the absurd standards of other cars on this list, but with little more than a bit of tune-up work, its capable of flinging this drag-ready specialist through the quarter-mile in just 11.88 seconds at 113.42 MPH, which is certainly nothing to scoff at.
12 Evan Mathieson's Chevrolet Vega
This beautifully-finished 1972 Chevrolet Vega belongs to lifelong enthusiast Evan Mathieson, who brought the car to its current state from little more than a clapped-out hulk with little in the way of re-usable parts.
Over the course of three years, Mathieson painstakingly fabricated a custom chassis, aiming for a rough-looking, fully-gutted (but functional) car.
However, inspired by a show car that a friend was working on, he decided to change lanes: sourcing all the necessary interior parts and body panels took him an additional year and a half. However impressive the car’s presentation, the Vega’s 468 ci V8 is the undisputed star of the show. Fitted with enough forged and fortified internals to comprise a list all of its own, this beautifully-presented behemoth pumps out 640 hp and 680 lb ft of torque.
11 David Carroll’s Chevrolet Vega
Built by autocross and Chevrolet enthusiast David Carroll, this one-of-a-kind Vega was meant to do battle in the traffic cone-lined arena of the Optima Ultimate Street Car Invitational, the country’s premier autocross competition. The added girth from the X6 Jongbloed Racing Wheels, measuring 10 inches wide up front and 10.5 inches at the rear, necessitated bolt-on overfenders, which have the added benefit of injecting some much needed aggression to the Vega’s Camaro Jr. appearance. Under the hood, Carroll elected to go for a Chevrolet crate motor, just not the LS you might expect: instead, you’ll find a 2.0 liter aluminum-block Chevrolet Performance LTG turbocharged inline-four, ideally suited for the rigors of autocross competition thanks to its mix of lightweight and 272 hp worth of grunt.
10 Dave Haney’s Chevrolet Vega
This Pro Street Vega, nicknamed the “Fusion Bomb” is the culmination of years of sweat and tears on the part of its owner, Philadelphia-based Dave Haney. Fusion Bomb’s Chromoly chassis diverges pretty significantly from the stock Vega, which enables all sorts of hooliganism-enabling componentry, including a beefy 32-inch ladder bar suspension. Power from the meticulously-presented 355 ci Chevy small-block, beautified with the aid of a handmade velocity stack (representing close to 25 hours of metalwork), is sent to a Ford 9-inch rear end through an ATI Turbo 400 transmission. The cockpit is finished to the same equally stratospheric standard, made entirely from custom-fabricated aluminum sheets and accessorized with a bespoke Chromoly roll cage and orange-painted Kirkey race seats.
9 Pro-touring Ford Pinto
Listed for sale in Central Florida in 2015, this unpleasantly-brown 1974 Ford Pinto is seemingly aimed nose-first at the local cone-lined autocross course. The build’s beating heart is a rebuilt OHC 2.3 liter inline-four, fitted with a Garrett T3/T4 turbocharger (which apparently blew a seal and requires a rebuild).
While no power figures are listed, we can safely assume that the number is some way above the stock car’s dismal 88 hp.
That thrust is sent through a T-5 five-speed manual and shortened Mustang Cobra driveshaft to an 8.8-inch rear end. The rear brakes are also Cobra sourced, while the units up front come courtesy of Wilwood.
8 Ford Pinto Wagon with a 302 Windsor
Listed for sale in Allentown, New Jersey, this 1980 Ford Pinto packs a nasty surprise under its fiberglass hood. Namely, a 302 cubic inch Ford Windsor V8 from a 1977 Mustang II Cobra, accessorized with an Edelbrock intake, Holley 650 carburetor, Crane camshaft, and MSD Pro distributor. Other components pillaged from Ford’s lineup include the five-speed transmission (courtesy of a 1999 Mustang), 17-inch Cobra wheels, and an 8.8-inch rear end with 3.73 gears sourced from a Ford Explorer SUV. In stark contrast to the hodgepodge running gear, the cockpit is mostly original, with period-correct (and extremely tacky) tan vinyl upholstery.
7 Ford Pinto with a 351 Cleveland
Even with its fat rear tires and semi-exposed exhaust headers, only visible when looking at the car straight on, this Pinto exudes a surprisingly reserved air. That impression is only reinforced by the vehicle’s exhaust note, which, according to its former owner, isn’t overly loud.
That’s somewhat surprising, given the decidedly unsubtle powerplant: a 351 ci Ford Cleveland V8, which made somewhere in the region of 300 hp from stock.
Other drag-strip ready accessories include a four-speed TopLoader transmission, 3.89 gears, a Detroit Locker-fitted 9-inch rear end, and a not-quite-complete roll cage (the driver’s side door bar was removed to facilitate entry and egress.)
6 Ford Pinto Wagon with a 355 Cleveland
This drag-prepped wagon backs up the promise of its 13.5-inch rear slicks with a power plant that can produce enough juice to power a small city. The 355 ci Cleveland V8 in this Pinto’s snout runs on alcohol and features a laundry list of high-dollar, high-power upgrades: a forged crankshaft, Crower conrods, 14:1 Jahns pistons, a solid roller camshaft, and MSD ignition with electronic line lock. Further drag-strip ready accouterments include a 12-point roll cage bolted directly to the tube frame chassis, a Neil Chance Powerglide transmission with 5.67 gears, a suitably sturdy-looking wheelie bar, and lightweight Lexan windows.
5 Mike Street’s Ford Pinto “Boss”
Mike Street’s 1972-spec “Boss Pinto” is far from the fastest car on this list. Instead, with little more than a few choice upgrades, it deliberately channels the Trans-Am cool of the Mustang Boss 302. Rather than a free-revving V8, you’ll find nothing more under the hood of this sporty compact than a worked-over 2.0 liter inline four with a set of Weber side draft carburetors. The aesthetic side of the equation is handled with a toothsome front splitter, subtle lip spoiler, and chunky BF Goodrich tires wrapped around polished-lip wheels.
4 Car and Driver’s Ford Pinto
This Ford Pinto was built by the folks over at Car and Driver magazine in an effort to create a budget-friendly yet competitive race car for the 1975 running of the Goodrich Radial Challenge, an IMSA-sanctioned road racing series for small sedans.
Its naturally-aspirated 2.3 liter inline four was worked over by Massachusetts-based firm Doug Fraser Racing Engines, and features a Corvette-sourced radiator for increased cooling capacity.
Plenty of attention was foisted upon the car’s running gear, which features Koni dampers up front and Bilstein units at the rear, with added stiffness coming courtesy of a chassis mounted roll cage.
3 Rick Blood's Ford Pinto “Revenge”
This extensively-modified Ford Pinto was campaigned by Monrovia, California-based drag race Rick Blood through much of the seventies and eighties, having seen plenty of action at the South’s most famous drag strips, namely Irwindale and Pomona Raceway. Mechanical details are scant, so aside from the fact that it was prepped to compete in the C/Altered class, which in itself has a pretty loose set of guidelines, I couldn’t tell you much about the heart of this tube-frame beast. Mind you, it's not like there’s much in the way of stock Pinto hardware under the car’s vibrantly liveried one-piece shell.
2 Joe Escobar’s Ford Pinto
The autocross circuit doesn’t seem like a natural fit for a compact car with a well-warranted reputation for wayward handling. However, the Ford Pinto does possess some characteristics that make it a surprisingly viable candidate for this sort of competition. First and foremost? Low curb weight: from stock, they tipped the scales at just over 2,000 lbs.
Joe Escobar aimed to cash in on that absence of mass with his own 1974 Ford Pinto, a winner of sub-3,000 lb class in the inaugural season of the Ultimate Street Car Association.
The main contributing factors to the car’s success? A Schneider Racing Cams roller camshaft, adjustable RideTech HQ shocks (which necessitated the creation of a new subfloor to allow access to the adjusters), 215-width Falken tires, and a fancy aluminum driveshaft.
1 Tim Reed’s Ford Pinto
This relatively unassuming 1979 Ford Pinto is one of the fastest street-legal examples in the world, capable of cracking the quarter-mile in a staggering 8.02 seconds at just over 171 MPH, all while being capable of clocking 21 MPG on the highway. The secret sauce? A 408 ci Chevrolet LS motor fitted with what basically amounts to the entirety of Callies’ and Wiseco’s respective parts catalogs. Those fortified internals are required to cope with the 17 psi of boost delivered by the pair of 67mm Precision turbochargers. Output is well into the four digits, with 1,240 hp and 1,000 lb ft of torque being routed to the 275-width rear slicks through a three-speed transmission.