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The infamous Ford Pinto

Quick notes

-The Ford Pinto is the subject of a series of landmark legal cases about damages because of its fuel tank exploding and the car catching on fire when rear-ended at speeds over 25 mph

-Ford owned the patent for a better-designed fuel tank but decided the cost of production retooling was too expensive

-Similar subcompacts produced during the same period had similar safety ratings.

The 70s were a wild time! Often forgotten when looking at the public relations disaster that was the Ford Pinto was that this was a time when seatbelts were not considered mandatory, and the passenger side mirror was an option.

It’s easy to look back on the life of the Ford Pinto as an absolute horrific safety disaster while forgetting that spiked metal lawn darts, Jarts, were a popular childhood Summertime game.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye was actually a real thing. Ford took safety just as seriously as everyone else did at the time – not at all.

Ford Pinto design

The Ford Pinto was rushed into production to compete with the Japanese and European subcompacts that were dominating the market. Lee Iacocca, then president of Ford, set a strict budget, weight, and timeline for the completion of the subcompact flaming death machine that the Ford Pinto became known as.

Looks-wise the Ford Pinto was similar to other subcompacts at the time. Long 70s style nose, short rear end. Nothing too flashy, some considered it to have a bland appearance. It was marketed as a budget subcompact car, and that is precisely what Ford delivered. No surprises there.


Ford Pinto safety issues

During regular safety testing, the Ford Pinto showed the same safety ratings as its competitors. Due to future increased safety requirements, Ford carried out more rigorous testing itself. This testing showed that the Ford Pinto was susceptible to fuel tank ruptures, causing fires when rear-ended at a speed of 25 mph or more. This was a result of rear design, fuel tank positioning, and composition.

The safety features preventing these fuel tank ruptures were not implemented despite the costs ranging in price between $11.45-$13.20 per car, and Ford owning a patent for a better-designed fuel tank. Ford felt that the real cost was in changes to the production line, which would have also slowed the time to market significantly. One of Ford’s executives completed a cost-benefit analysis, which showed that the cost of paying off the lawsuits, which would result from the fuel tank ruptures, would be less than the cost of implementing the additional safety measures.

The weight could be no more than 2000 pounds, price no more than $2000. The Ford Pinto went into production 25 months from inception, about half of the normal timeline

So Ford decided to proceed with the Ford Pinto as it was designed. The lawsuits resulting from this failure to implement the safety measures are considered landmark cases concerning damages, human safety, and the value of life in financial cost-benefit analysis terms.

To the credit of Ford, they did eventually issue a recall on all 1971-1976 Ford Pintos, which addressed the fuel tank rupture issues.  But by that time the damage had been done.

There were horror stories of people burning alive in their cars

The design meant that when rear-ended, the doors usually jammed, and the resulting heat from the fire when the fuel tank exploded meant that the door handles and locks quickly melted, meaning people were trapped in the car to burn alive while bystanders watched helplessly.  Just horrifying.

Ford failing to implement inexpensive safety measures meant lives were lost, and people suffered horrifying burns. The resulting lawsuits taint their image to this day, although the Ford Pinto had a similar safety rating of other subcompacts of its time.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

The most unsafe car models ever made | Autos101

The Ford Pinto isn’t the only hazardous car model produced and sold, check out the others

The all-American 2019 Shelby Ford F-150 | Autos101

Check out another Ford, the all-American 2019 Shelby Ford F-150.