Low-production, turbocharged Ford from the early Seventies... with a secret
It was a dream sports car specification in the early smog-choked Seventies. Picture: a solid 175hp out of two overhead-cammed, Weber-carbureted, turbocharged, water-injected liters; engineering involvement by legendary land-speed racer Ak Miller; a curb weight of just 2,300 pounds due in part to an intimate 94.2-inch wheelbase; suspension that compelled a sports-car-like .80g or so thanks, in part, to rack-and-pinion steering and low-profile, 65-series tires; a needle-nose profile hovering aggressively above the road. Better still, it was built entirely in America, from styling to engineering to Blue Oval power, though European machinery was clearly an influence. It was a far cry from the sheer brute torque of the traditional V-8, but it helped introduce the onset of more balanced performance, able to measure performance around turns as well as in straight lines.
Never heard of Pangra? We're not surprised. It was a limited-run 2+2 whose brief life at the start of the emissions era proved that just because odious smog controls were coming on board, the fun behind the wheel didn't need to end. Only a handful were built-somewhere between 20 and 200, according to those who keep up with such things, though exact records are lost to the mists of time-and today, just five of these rare beasts are known to survive intact. All things considered, it was pretty affordable: about $4,600 in 1973 dollars, which put Pangra in a position to spank a Porsche 914S for about a grand less, and flat embarrass a Datsun 240Z outright.
Brad Fagan of San Diego, California, owns two Pangras: This one, which may well have been the press car used for magazine tests conducted by Road & Track, Motor Trend and Road Test, and another, which is receiving a full hi-tech refurbishment as we speak. Brad was kind enough to let us go for a spin behind the wheel of his rare sportster to garner some impressions.
Before we did, though, he tuned us in to a couple of changes he made from stock Pangra specs. The water-injection unit for the turbo is impossible to find, and so is absent, while compression has been bumped a full point, from 7.0:1 to 8.0:1, because he couldn't find anyone who made 7.0:1 pistons. The wheels and tires aren't strictly correct either: The 5.5 x 13 slot mags wrapped in Continental radials have been replaced with 15 x 7 Weld wheels and modern rubber, which doesn't really detract from the Seventies style-though the taller rear tire effectively makes a higher (numerically lower) rear-gear ratio, which could hurt all-out acceleration. Otherwise, it's all correct and 1973-spec. Brad also warned us that, despite how it looks in pictures, it's far from perfect: it's never been completely apart, though he's got 250+ hours in the reinstallation and refurbishment.
With those caveats, we enter. The doors, relative to the length of the car, are enormous-they're not heavy, and swing with ease, but they seem to take up half the profile. Slip inside and take stock. Man, it's dark in here. The cockpit is intimate...maybe a little too intimate: Your tall-torsoed test driver is bumping his head on the headliner, and the tops of the gauges are blocked by the top arc of the steering wheel. (This is slightly immaterial, insofar as the speedo isn't working today anyway). Such is the price of a low-production special such as this.
The rake of the windshield isn't so steep as to be a mail-slot (though the rearview mirror, mounted in the dead center of the windshield, is a little distracting), and your proximity to the rest of the glass makes for fine visibility in most directions. The rest of it is just dark, with precious little to distract you from the task at hand. No body-colored metal, no wood veneer (real or fake), no brightwork accentuating anything. All the better to see the full complement of Stewart-Warner gauges, including a digital tach (not operational for our little jaunt, alas)-hot stuff for 1973. The console lends a sporting touch, and the black cloth Recaros bolster you in all the right places without threatening to pinch you like a corset or stab you in the shoulder blades. At your left hand is a manual handle for raising the headlamps. It is, in all respects, a proper 1970s supercar.
Press in the clutch and twist the key. The little 2.0-liter SOHC four turns over immediately, and settles in at a wicked 1,400-rpm idle, breathing deep through its Weber 5200 carb. We call it a little four; with 175 turbocharged horsepower on hand, and only 2,500 pounds to push around (driver included), it had the potential to act like something far larger. Blip the throttle at idle and there's something distinctly snotty going on: It's high-pitched but not buzzy like the hordes of tuner-beasts that prowl the modern highway.
On this day, our Pangra accelerated like a modern subcompact would; in a time when a new Honda Accord will out-accelerate the recent Mercury Marauder, that's far from an insult. A shorter tire would have helped in our drive, but performance-oriented 13-inch rubber is rare these days. Back-in-the-day reports mentioned prodigious turbo lag, but we experienced none of this: just a linear power curve that gave the impression that it was naturally aspirated and of slightly larger displacement. As mentioned earlier, the water injection was missing, so its full performance potential still has yet to reveal itself.
The manual rack-and-pinion steering was plenty direct but just a tad on the numb side, and the disc brake nose required a firm pedal to grind down any speed whatsoever. Shifting was a touch on the rubbery side, the result of 30 years of work; Brad admits that a slightly more direct shifter is in the cards. Cornering was a revelation: While the ride was no more harsh than other sports machinery of the era, the nose stayed flat, and cornering was delightfully neutral, despite the different-sized rubber front and rear, while in our hands.
So we've driven it; we've met the man who knows more about Pangras than probably anyone else out there today.
But what is it?
Well, surely by now you've scanned the rest of the pictures and figured out the Pangra's dirty little secret: It's a Pinto. But without that telltale roofline (which, let's be honest, bears more than a passing resemblance to the full-frame 1972 Torino GT/Montego GT fastback roofline), would you have known? After a couple of miles behind the wheel, we wouldn't have. If anything, the Pangra fully exploits the underlying potential in the little econobox's platform.
Once upon a time, Pangra was the brainchild of Jack Stratton, general sales manager at Huntington Ford in Arcadia, California; the goal was to keep the performance torch burning in whatever way he could. If that meant turbocharging a Pinto, so be it. With the muscle car as it was known nearly buried by 1973, and the Pinto's gas tank woes a couple of years away, performance cars were compelled to take on new and previously unconsidered forms; the Pangra certainly fit that bill. It was developed completely in-house with the exception of Ak Miller's turbocharger conversion, which was commercially available on its own and had proven its mettle. Compression was dropped from a stock eight-and-change to an even 7:1, and the head was O-ringed for durability. Boost was limited to ten pounds, and more than one magazine surmised that the turbo not only added boost, but also distributed fuel more evenly to all cylinders, thus acting more like fuel injection than a draw-through turbo attached to a two-barrel Weber carb had a right to.
Back when the Pangra was contemporary, much hay was made over not only its power (and 1.42 horsepower per cubic inch is an excellent number, even by modern standards), but its relative cleanliness: The turbo helped the Pangra blow exhaust numbers to the tune of 1975 levels. This was a massive victory-not least of which because it was pulled off by a mom-and-pop shop that seemed able to get ahead of the curve on such matters in a time when Detroit was struggling mightily with pellet-type catalytic converters.
Pangra pieces were available in kit form or as a complete car sold through Huntington Ford; the Pantera-inspired nose and headlamps (which integrate a stock grille and front bumper) made up Kit #1 and were a popular conversion nationwide; the revised interior, including dash, console and Stewart-Warner gauges, comprised Kit #2; the Spearco "Can Am" suspension kit (sway bars, Konis, and a two-inch slam with attendant geometry changes) was Kit #3, and the real whammy was Kit #4, which included all of these things plus the turbocharger. Not included in any of the kits were the Recaros, the console or the custom dash; these are the hallmarks of the Pangras sold through the dealership as complete cars.
You could buy only complete Pangras from Huntington Ford, and for this reason, most "factory-built" Pangras tend to be known to live around Southern California. Hundreds of nose kits were manufactured and sent out around the country, however; just because it has the fiberglass nose doesn't mean it's an authentic factory-built piece.
As we mentioned at the top of the story, this might be the very press car that was handed to hordes of ham-fisted journalists back in 1973. There are a couple of indicators: When Brad stripped the car down to bare metal to paint it, he noticed that it was originally black-same color as the one in all the magazines. Also, the Pangra press beater had a prototype roof-mounted wing added in the fall of 1973, supposedly fitted for some high-speed testing conducted by Gordon Johncock at the Ontario, California, road course; our test Pangra had two plugs that covered holes in the exact spot where the wing appeared to be mounted. (It's just as well it's gone; the wing looked more cartoon than Can-Am.) Also, this Pangra is a 1972 model even though Pangras were introduced halfway through 1973; this, and the 1972-and-earlier front bumper, point to signs of it being an early development mule. All circumstantial evidence, granted, but considering how few of these were actually built, anything's possible.
Brad's other Pangra, a black full-on custom job with 250hp, heartier internals and many more modern touches, actually was in process first and is still not quite done at this writing; still, his work on that particular car led him to this one. "My neighbor, who is a car buff, told me he knew of another one," says Brad, who traveled to Pomona to see it.
Still, it was a bit of a mess. The body was intact but in primer, the interior was all there except for a set of shredded Recaros (some NOS Porsche 914 fabric took care of that), the factory 13-inch mags were gone, and (rather crucially) all of the Ak Miller turbo equipment had fled the scene. Luckily, Brad had to look no further than his own garage for some of the pieces. "The exhaust manifold, crossover and intake would have been the toughest pieces to find, but I had these from my '73," he explains. After a thorough block-sanding, Brad applied two coats of PPG Guards Red (a Porsche color), color-sanded each coat with 600-grade paper, then two coats of clearcoat, with a 2000-grade rub in between. Other missing pieces, like a jack, spare tire and radiator, were easily (and relatively cheaply) acquired. He figures he spent about 250 hours getting this Pangra in the shape you see it here.
What's next for Brad and his Pangra? Driving this one, finishing up its twin, and reveling in the glory of cornering the market on a little-known but significant slice of American performance history.
OWNER'S VIEW I grew up in Temple City, California, near Huntington Ford in Arcadia. I got a taste of the Pangra in the mid-Seventies, when a few friends had V-8s wedged into Pangra-nosed cars, but I thought that a "factory" Pangra was the car to own. After a decade of looking, I now own two of the five factory cars still known to exist. As Pangras go, this is the only original running car I know of-and I enjoy its rarity. This one was in rough shape when I found it in Pomona in 2001; the head was off, the body was in primer, the seats were ripped, and the factory mags and the whole Ak Miller turbo-conversion and water-injection system were completely missing. Those were some of the hardest parts to get hold of. I wanted to do a full restoration, as close to what you could buy off the lot as I could get it. Other than the wheels, it is just that. If anyone finds another real one out there, it'll probably be in bad shape, but there are still some front-end kits floating around, and you can do a good-looking "kit" Pangra with a little research and patience. The comments I get at shows are great-some even ask me if this is "one of those Australian Fords."-Brad Fagan
PROS + Very few "factory" cars made + The bitchinest looking and handling Pinto ever + Seamless turbo power helped the little 2.0L feel contemporary
CONS - Good luck finding one intact - Controls were all a little loosey-goosey - Dress it up how you like, but it's still a Pinto
Club Scene Ford Pinto Club of America www.fordpinto.com Dues: $20/year Membership: 1,275
Price Base price: $4,600 Stock Pinto: $2,235
Engine Type: SOHC I-4, iron block and head Displacement: 122 cubic inches Bore x Stroke: 3.58 inches x 3.03 inches Compression ratio: 8.0:1 Horsepower @ rpm: 175 @ 5,500 Torque @ rpm: 220-lbs.ft. @ 3,600 Camshaft: Erson 290AS mechanical, .532/.532 lift, 217 degrees duration at .050 lift, solid lifters Main bearings: 5 Fuel system: Single Weber two-barrel Lubrication system: Melling M86-B oil pump Electrical system: 12-volt Exhaust system: Ak Miller cast-iron manifold and downpipe, AiResearch T4 turbocharger (15 pounds boost max), 2-1/4-inch mandrel-bent exhaust pipe, Summit Turbo muffler (2-1/4-inch inlet and outlet), 2-1/2-inch Borla stainless tip