Custom vans defined the 1970s. You can chalk that movement up to a number of factors: withdrawal from the hippie movement or the disappearance of muscle cars, a market glut of used first- and second-generation American work vans, and a burgeoning interest in light-duty trucks despite the OPEC oil crisis. It all combined to create the perfect storm for one of the more unique eras of vehicle personalization.

Van modifications were bound only by the owner’s imagination or bank account, with mild to wild paint or vinyl graphics, customized interiors from plain to over-the-top faux luxury, aftermarket porthole windows, and the gamut of aftermarket wheels. In a few instances, engine performance was beefed up, but by and large, the van movement was about making a visual statement.

Like most personalized vehicle trends, Vannin’ was initially looked down upon — especially with the overall perception (and occasional reality) of custom vans being rolling bordellos. Yet by the mid-1970s, Detroit started to embrace them. By 1976, the Big Three all had various van upgrade packages — and even builder packages that got you a bare-and-ready unit to personalize as you pleased.

A new economy-size street van

Ford’s vehicle personalization marketing effort at the time was called “Free Wheelin’.” Started in 1976, it focused on light trucks, but also on more affordable car lines for younger buyers. They offered a number of turn-key option packages for personalized-looking pickups, vans and cars as inspiration for a new owner of a Mustang, Maverick or Pinto.

It was the latter that got more traction, as one of the concepts was a Pinto MPG wagon with blocked-out rear-quarter windows and a very trendy custom van porthole window added. This piqued the interest of the customer base, and Ford decided to move the custom van trend down to their economy car.

For 1977, Ford introduced the “mini street van” Pinto Cruising Wagon. It was a near copycat of an Econoline Cruising Van introduced the same year. Both featured silver paint with matte black side-panel inserts, bordered by red, orange and yellow stripes. And of course, they had glass bubble porthole rear-quarter windows.

The Pinto Cruising Wagon came with front spoiler, sport mirrors and styled steel wheels. On the inside, it was only available with high-back bucket seats — in either standard full vinyl or with woven insets — and with the Sports Rally package trim and gauge pack, plus fully carpeted floor and rear-compartment sides.

In addition to the full-monty two-tone, the Cruising Wagon was also available in single-color paint with a more low-key complementing striping and graphics. You could also get it sans graphics in one solid color. Engines and transmissions were standard Pinto — 89-hp 2.3L 4-cylinder or the optional 93-hp 2.8L V6.

The Pinto carried on into 1978 with minimal changes, including the Cruising Wagon. For 1979, the car got a new front fascia and bolder taillights, giving it a bulkier look. All of the body styles carried over, although the Cruising Wagon was now referred to as the “Pinto Wagon with Cruising Package.” Now with only one graphics package, it retained the matte black door frames and side panels and now had all blacked-out trim. The vinyl graphics were now more of a rainbow motif and had wider side panels. The graphics-free Cruising Package (now with a $55 tape-stripe-delete credit) also changed to blackened trim, plus was narrowed down to one of only five color choices.

End of the line

With the controversy surrounding the Pinto’s easily ruptured fuel tanks (a non-issue with wagons, as they were better protected from the day they were introduced in 1972) and its replacement “world car” Escort one year out, Ford rolled out even more trim and graphics packages in 1980 to keep the Pinto fresh to the buying public.

The Cruising Package once again got revised graphics on the upper rear-quarter panels around the porthole window. There was also a new one-year-only Rallye Pack, which was essentially a Cruising Wagon package with graphics from the also new Rallye Pack runabout. The no-graphics Cruising Package also continued — “the quiet version,” per Ford’s PR department, which also got you a $70 credit.

When the Escort did arrive in 1981, it offered a wagon, but with five doors. It was a new day for Ford, a clean sheet with front-wheel drive, a new name, and no vestiges of “Cruising”— or even sporty.

Cruising into the 21st century

Over the past decade, Pintos have seen a renewed cult following, although some of the revised interest goes back to over a decade ago when 1970s “nerd cars” started coming into vogue.

Pinto wagons were insanely popular when they were new (the Pinto Squire was the most popular of all Ford wagons in 1974, at 237,934 units sold). Pinto enthusiasts today also tend to focus on the wagons. Today, 1977 and ’78 silver and black full-graphics-package cars seem to surface regularly, as those were a popular dealer-ordered item to put on the showroom floor to generate traffic.

While Ford’s attempt at making the compact wagon into a compact custom van trend petered out, it still did well enough to stay until the bitter end. Today, they are seeing increased interest — and prices — as one of the more odd examples of a most odd decade.

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