50 Years Ago: The Pinto Becomes Ford’s ‘Embarrassment’
On Sept. 11, 1970, Ford introduced one of the most infamous cars in automotive history: the Pinto.
The car’s creation went back several years. Throughout the ‘60s, Ford president Lee Iacocca watched as Japanese imports from Toyota and Datsun began winning over U.S. consumers.
The foreign cars specialized in affordable subcompact automobiles, a niche in the market that Ford had largely ignored. Determined to maintain his company’s place at the top of the American automotive hierarchy, Iacocca pushed forward a plan to introduce a new addition to the Ford line.
The executive’s objective was clear: He wanted a compact car, weighing less than 2,000 pounds and priced at less than $2,000. They’d call this project the Pinto, its name coming from a term given to horses whose coats have large distinctive patches of white.
Watch a Ford Pinto Commercial
The most aggressive aspect of Iacocca’s initiative was its timeline. The Ford president insisted that the model be introduced quickly. While most new car plans at the time took 43 months from conception through delivery, the Pinto would be completed in 25 months - at the time, the shortest production planning schedule in automotive history.
Designers would work overtime to bring the Pinto from concept to reality. The ramped-up timeline meant various aspects of production would take place at the same time, rather than sequentially. Such a schedule proved problematic when a design flaw was found during the testing phase.
Ford’s engineers discovered that the Pinto’s gas tank - affixed on the rear undercarriage of the car - was easily punctured during low-speed crash tests. This posed a serious risk of fire, since a simple spark could lead the car to become engulfed in flames.
Watch a Ford Pinto Commercial
As the vehicles were already in production, Ford examined its options. The company conducted a cost-benefit analysis, comparing the projected costs for fixing the fuel tank with the potential costs associated with settling claims for burns, repair costs and deaths. Ford estimated that repairs would cost $11 per car, for an approximate total of $113 million; conversely, the company believed damage payouts would cost only around $49 million. With that information in hand, Ford pressed forward with the Pinto without ordering any alterations.
When the Pinto was introduced on Sept. 11, 1970, it was met with much fanfare. Advertising campaigns called it the "Little Carefree Car.” Early reviews were positive. Car and Driver described the vehicle as “exceptionally satisfying," likening its maneuverability to the “feel of a sports car.” Despite this praise, issues soon arose.
Less than two months after it was introduced, 26,000 Pintos were recalled due to a problem with the accelerator. In March 1971, Ford recalled an additional 220,000 Pintos due to the risk of fuel vapors in the engine air filter possibly igniting. The worst was still to come.
In 1978, Ford faced two separate court cases connected to safety concerns surrounding the Pinto’s gas tank. In both instances, Pinto passengers had burned to death after their cars burst into flames following rear-end collisions.
A scalding report from Mother Jones titled “Pinto Madness” would publicly lay the blame directly on Ford, calling the car an "embarrassment" for the company. The magazine asserted, among other things, that the car manufacturer rushed the Pinto into production, chose to ignore and lie about the fuel-tank problems and placed “a dollar value on human life.”
Mother Jones further claimed that up to 900 people had burned to death as a result of Ford’s inaction. Though these claims would later be questioned - Mother Jones, it turned out, got much of its information from plaintiffs suing Ford - the sensationalism of the report resonated in the court of public opinion.
Ford found itself in headlines for all the wrong reasons. In one case, a jury awarded a burn victim more than $125 million in damages; a judge later reduced the amount. In another, Ford was indicted on three counts of reckless homicide. After initially being one of the most popular cars in America, the Pinto became synonymous with failure and corporate greed. The car’s reputation was that of a death trap.
Decades later, the Pinto would receive a partial redemption. In 1990, Gary T. Schwartz, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, published a paper titled "The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case," which used facts and data to show that the Pinto was no more unsafe than other subcompact cars at the time, despite the hysteria surrounding its issues.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the car from maintaining its dubious legacy. Both Time and Forbes named the Pinto one of the worst cars of all time, while Popular Mechanics called it “possibly the best example of what happens when poor engineering meets corporate negligence.”