In the early 1970s the American auto industry was facing stiff competition from the Volkswagen Beetle (VW) and smaller Japanese imports from Toyota and Datsun. Ford’s then President Lee Iacocca, argued that the company needed a low-priced car in a hurry to compete with Volkswagen and the Japanese imports. Iacocca argued that those competitors would capture the entire American subcompact market unless Ford produced a competitor to the VW Beetle. The answer to this problem was the Pinto, very laughable in hindsight but thought to be practical and innovative.
The Pinto product development from conception through delivery was completed in 25 months, for perspective the automotive industry average was 43 months. The Pinto project was the shortest production planning schedule in automotive history. Iacocca wanted the car to weigh under 2,000 pounds and to be priced at less than $ 2,000. Ford discouraged decisions that threatened to delay the schedule of the car. The attitude of Ford management was to develop the Pinto as quickly as possible.
On September 11, 1970, the Pinto went on sale. Less than two months after introduction, 26,000 Pintos were recalled to address a problem with the accelerator sticking once engaged more than halfway. On March 29, 1971, Ford recalled 220,000 Pintos. This recall was to address a problem with fuel vapors in the engine air filter igniting by a backfire through the carburetor. With all the recalls, the Pinto still sold over 352,402 cars by the end of 1971. The Pinto was met with both positive and negative reviews by such auto magazines like Road and Track and Car and Driver.
The Ford Pinto had one fatal design flaw, its fuel tank was placed between the rear axle and the rear bumper. The rear placement of the fuel tank was a standard practice in U.S. subcompact cars in the 1970s. If, the Pinto ever got into a rear end collision it was vulnerable to fuel leakage and to catch on fire. The vulnerability was exacerbated by reduced rear “crush space,” a lack of structural reinforcement in the rear, and a rear bumper that was essentially an “ornament.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), passed the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in 1967. Unfortunately, the standards only considered front impacts. As the Pinto was being developed, the NHTSA proposed expanding the standards to cover rear-end collisions. Ford initially publicly supported the standard. In 1970 as the Pinto was being produced the NHTSA proposed a more stringent standard that car companies had to meet in 18 months, with the added caveat that the NHTSA announcing a goal of setting a 30mph fixed barrier standard soon. Ford saw this standard as very stringent for car companies. Ford elected to meet the initial lower standard by 1973, and it formerly objected to the more stringent fuel system safety standard.
Ford started crash testing cars in 1970 in response to the new NHSTA regulations. These tests revealed fuel tank vulnerability at fairly low crash speeds. Design changes were made, but post launch tests showed similar results. Ford’s engineers weren’t pleased with the car’s performance but there was no slowing the Pinto production. Ford also tested several vehicle modifications that could have improved rear impact performance, but they added none of these modifications to the Pinto.
In 1973, reports of Pinto’s consumed by fire after low speed rear-end collisions were received by Ford. Ford reviewed the data twice and concluded a recall was unnecessary.
In 1974, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the NHTSA to recall Ford Pinto to address fuel system design defects. There were three deaths and four serious injuries reported in rear-end collisions at moderate speeds involving the Pinto. The NHTSA found that there was no evidence to warrant a defect investigation.
In 1977, Mark Dowie wrote an investigative article titled “Pinto Madness,” which was published in Mother Jones Magazine. The article leveled a series of accusations against Ford, the Pinto and the NHTSA. The accusations included that Ford knew the Pinto was a “fire trap,” and that Ford did not implement design changes because Ford’s cost benefit analysis showed that paying millions in damages in lawsuits was cheaper than fixing the Pinto design flaws. The day after the article was released, the Center for Auto Safety resubmitted their petition to the NHTSA. The very next day NHTSA started another investigation on the Ford Pinto. On May 8, 1978, the NHTSA informed Ford that the Pinto’s fuel system was defective.
On June 9, 1978 days before the NHTSA was to issue Ford a formal recall order, Ford recalled 1.5 million Ford Pintos the largest recall in automotive history. The Ford recall placed a polyethylene shield between the tank and likely causes of puncture. Ford also lengthened the filler tube and improved the tank filler seal, all things that could have been put in place before the Pintos release.
Plaintiff’s brought 117 lawsuits against Ford in connection with rear-end Pinto collisions. The two most significant cases were Grimshaw v Ford Motor Company and State of Indiana v Ford Motor Company.
Grimshaw v Ford Motor Company
In 1972, a Ford Pinto driven by Lilly Gray stalled as she entered a merge lane on a California freeway. Her Pinto was rear-ended by another car traveling about 30 miles per hour. The Pinto’s gas tank ruptured, releasing gasoline vapors that quickly spread to the passenger compartment. A spark ignited, and the Pinto exploded into a ball of fire.
Gray died a few hours later. Her passenger a thirteen-year-old named Richard Grimshaw, suffered disfiguring burns and had to endure dozens of operations. He underwent surgery to graft a new ear and nose to his body.
The jury awarded $2.516 million to the Grimshaws, $ 559,680 to the Grays and $125 million in punitive damages against Ford. A later court reduced the punitive award to $3.5 million. The court found that Ford had knowingly endangered the lives of thousands of Pinto owners.
In the trial it was revealed that Ford engineers considered many solutions to the fuel tank problems, including lining the fuel tank with a nylon bladder that cost $5.25- $8.00 a vehicle, adding structural protection in the car’s rear at a cost of $4.20 per vehicle and placing a plastic baffle between the fuel tank and the differential housing at a cost of $1.00 per vehicle. To keep the production of the Pinto on time, keep the weight under 2,000 lbs. and keep the costs under $ 2,000 they included none of these suggestions on the Pinto. A $1.00 piece of equipment that could have prevented the gas tank punctures was dismissed for cost and weight purposes.
Another feature to come out of the case was the aforementioned cost benefit analysis. The analysis compared the cost to fix the vehicle defects to the societal costs for injuries and deaths related to fires in cases of vehicle roll overs. Ford estimated the cost of fuel system modifications to be $11 per car across 12.5 million cars for $137 million. Ford estimated the cost to pay out lawsuits at $49.5 million. Ford calculated it could save 88 million by just paying out the ensuing lawsuits. This memo was also featured in the Mother Jones article.
Indiana vs. Ford Motor Co.
In 1978, three teenage girls in Osceola Indiana were killed when the 1973 Pinto they were in was involved in a rear end collision. The driver had stopped in the road to retrieve the car’s gas cap which had been inadvertently left on the top of the car and subsequently fell onto the road. While stopped, a van struck the Pinto. A grand jury indicted Ford on three counts of reckless homicide. The case was the first time a corporation faced criminal charges for a defective product and the first time a corporation was charged with murder. Luckily for Ford, it was found not guilty. A subsequent civil suit was settled for $ 7,500 for each plaintiff.
In 2004, Forbes magazine listed the Pinto as one of the 14 worst cars of all time. In 2008, Time magazine listed the Pinto in its list of the fifty worst cars of all time. Time stated, “The Ford Pinto was a famously bad automobile, but worse still might be Ford’s handling of the safety concerns.” I couldn’t sum it up better by myself.
Later analysis of the Ford Pinto fiasco by UCLA Law Professor Gary T. Schwartz found that the Pinto safety record was average or slightly above average for compacts and all cars, respectively. He considered this rating respectable for a subcompact car. Only when considering the narrow subset of rear impact fire fatalities, was the Pinto worse than average for a subcompact car. Though this specific point caused all the Pinto and Ford legal mess, Schwartz concludes the Pinto was not a fire trap. Given all the information I have laid out, it’s frightening to think the Pinto was “average” in safety rating for its class. What exactly were auto makers or the NHTSA doing in the 70s?
Mistakes were Made:
So many mistakes, let’s briefly discuss the big ones.
1. Ford rushed the production of the Pinto.
2. during Production of the Pinto, Ford found the gas tank fire defect but concluded that keeping the car under a certain weight and cost was more important.
3. reports of rear end collision explosions were first reported to Ford in 1973 and subsequently ignored as not a big deal.
4. A report was made by Ford that concluded that the cost of paying out lawsuits because of the Pinto’s defects was cheaper than a recall to fix the problem.
5. the NHTSA initially ruled that the Pinto did not need to be recalled and only after a national news article that shamed the NHTSA and Ford did they start another “real” investigation.
6. The initial radio advertisement for the Pinto had a line that stated: “Pinto leaves you with a warm feeling.” I mean talk about irony?
7. Ford waited till days before the NHTSA was about to issue a public formal recall of the Pinto to recall the Pinto, over an issue it knew about during production.
In the Mother Jones article it stated between 500–900 burn deaths because of Pinto crashes. This number is disputed and the official number given is 27 deaths. We know that the deaths could have been prevented if Ford added the $11 worth of parts to the Pinto. Sadly, I don’t think this will be the last time a corporation puts profit and cost over human lives.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on January 21, 2020.