The Ford Pinto. The nameplate of this car rings in different memories for different people. Some would call it a memorable family car, some a death trap, and for the people involved in making and selling it – it was a PR disaster. With the advent of the Internet, the Pinto gave rise to many a meme and remains the butt of many jokes today.
But is the hype and all that we know about this fireball of car true? Was Ford blind to its faults? Or was it aware of all that could go wrong and still released it on an unsuspecting public? Let's see if you have your facts straight about the Ford Pinto.
10 The Pinto Was A Rushed Project
At the time, the normal period for a car from concept to production was some forty-three months – a little less than four years. But the Pinto was rushed through it all because Lee Iacocca wanted it to be included in the 1971 line-up. So the Ford Pinto went from being a paper sketch into an actual assembly line roll-off in flat 25 months, basically, two years. Since everything was rushed and kept hush-hush as well, a gas tank problem was conveniently ignored – much like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. The problem was there but since the solution wasn’t, the Pinto went for sale. This, even though Ford had a patent on a much safer gas tank, so installed in the Ford Capri.
9 The 40 Crash Tests Pinto Failed
What was appalling was the fact that the Pinto has been crash-tested some 40 times, and it was done in a hush-hush way. The reason for all this secrecy was that the fuel tank of the Pinto ruptured in every test where it was rear-ended at speeds above 25mph.
It’s not as if each rupture meant that the Pinto went boom, but the risk of a fire or an explosion is always there when gas began to leak. Other than liquid gas pooling around the engine and crash site, vapors can reach the interior of the car which puts the passengers at major risk in case of a spark – very common when there has been a collision.
8 When It All Came To Light
In 1977, a Lilly Gray was driving a Ford Pinto which stalled suddenly the moment she merged onto a California freeway. Since she stopped without warning, another car rear-ended her Pinto, but only at 30 mph since the driver applied his brakes as fast as he could. Sadly, this was enough to rupture the Pinto’s gas tanks and the gas vapors spread into the car. In a worst-case scenario coming true, they were ignited by a spark. The fire took the life of Lilly Gray and badly injured a 13-year-old passenger Richard Grimshaw. Grimshaw needed dozens of grafting and operations to mend what was lost, though burns are never really fixed.
7 The Court Case That Ford Lost
Both the families, Grimshaw and Gray filed a tort action against Ford which they unequivocally won. The Grimshaws were awarded $2.5 million and the Grays got $500,000 as reparation costs for injuries, loss, and damages suffered. The jury, completely holding Ford and the Pinto as villains also charged Ford $125 million in punitive damages – Ford appealed this and it got massively reduced to $3.5 million.
But the loss to Ford’s reputation was done since the punitive damages remained. This told the world that Ford knowingly put its customers at risk with the Pinto. The reason for this was that by the time Ford got to know about its gas tank problem, tooling had already been done. With the project deadline approaching – they just let it be.
6 The Problem That Was Not Fixed
Lee Iacocca, the man responsible for creating both the Mustang and the Pinto had decried that the Pinto will not weigh even half-an-ounce more than 2,000 pounds, and not a cent more than $2000. This decree managed to interfere with fixing the gas tank rupture problem of the Pinto. A plastic wedge that weighed a pound and cost just a dollar was left on the idea board since the car would then have weighed and cost more. There were other reasonable solutions Ford had on the table that added a maximum of 8 dollars per unit cost. But they were also never used, for reasons best known to Ford.
5 Of Course, Iacocca Did Not Know
Iacocca wasn’t much concerned about auto safety. Legend is that he famously used to say, “safety doesn’t sell cars”. So none of the Ford executives working on the Pinto could go up to him and tell him that the Pinto, his little pet project, had a safety issue. Not if they wanted to keep their job.
The reason for all the pressure over Pinto was that Ford felt it was lagging in the subcompact market since the competition like the Volkswagen Beetle and all the nifty Japanese entrants were doing fabulously well. Ford needed a footing in the small car market and the Pinto was just the car to do it, that too by 1971. And so it was launched, by hook or by crook.
4 Cheaper To Pay Off Damages
The problem with large conglomerates is that in the end, human life is just a dollar value. So when the Pinto problem began to get widespread, Ford did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that facing a lawsuit and making settlements was cheaper than to recall the Pintos out there and begin to fix the problem. Never mind the few odd people who lost their lives in the death-trap they were driving in the guise of a car. Far from Henry Ford’s ideology of each American having an affordable car, Ford now believed that a dangerous car should just be let loose, never mind the damages.
3 As Sub-Standard As It Could Get
Since Ford knew about Pinto’s fatal defect and still chose to release the car – in effect, it showed its middle finger to the consumer. It paid millions in out-of-court settlements and then more millions to lobby against safety standards. Media reports of the time state that since Ford had launched an unsafe car, it wanted the safety standards reduced to match its subpar standard than raise the bar for itself and its cars. By 1977 though, the newer Pinto models managed to meet federal safety standards since all the lobbying in the world failed to help Ford.
2 Media Exacerbated The Issue
Mother Jones magazine published an article called Pinto Madness and said that some 180 people were charred to death by and in the Pinto every year. A rear-end collision over 25mph speeds was guaranteed to rupture the gas tank, and if the rear-ender happened to be at 40mph, Pinto’s doors sometimes jammed as well. Gory is the word one can use to describe this. Later though, despite this article, other media began to refute Pinto being an unsafe car. At that time the number of deaths that happened in a Pinto per year with the number of cars they sold was at par with causality statistics of other subcompact cars. As is obvious, every Pinto did not cause death and neither did every rear-ended Pinto. But the chance was there.
1 The Pinto’s Fiery Success And Failure
In 1971 itself, more than 350,000 Pintos sold in the US. A ten-year production run saw more than 3million Pintos run off the assembly lines to the dealerships where customers grabbed this cheap and small car as quickly as they could. In 1978, Ford recalled some 1.5 million to fix up the exploding Pinto issue once and for all. “Lee’s car”, as the Pinto was dubbed by Ford execs, had suffered irreparable character damage; as had Ford. While the Mother Jones cost-analysis report may have been flawed in its understanding, the NHTSA came down hard on Ford then making it clear that safety is paramount. With enough Pintos turning fiery, the tagline of “Pinto leaves you with that warm feeling” was also dropped like a hot potato. The lesson Ford took with it was simply making the highest safety standard cars from then on, till now.