Mentioning the Ford Pinto conjures up images of corporate malfeasance, poor engineering and shoddy craftsmanship. Though often considered a punchline today, the 1971-1976 Ford Pinto and its engineering flaws were no laughing matter. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) eventually declared the Pinto’s fuel system defective after 27 people died in Pinto fires.
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The Ford Pinto started its life as the brainchild of then Ford Motor Company vice president Lee Iacocca. Iacocca envisioned Ford capturing the American subcompact market with a vehicle weighing no more than 2,000 pounds and costing no more than $2,000. Iacocca became Ford president as the company rushed the Pinto into production.
Ford executives fretted about import competition. Automotive News reported by the late 1960’s Volkswagen, Datsun, Toyota and Honda were making inroads into the American small car market. Ford wanted to dominate the American small car space by beating their competitors to the market with a compact, affordable car. That rush ended up costing Ford in the long run.
Ford spent 25 months planning the Pinto while most vehicles at the time spent roughly 43 months in planning. Robert Lacey, author of Ford: The Men and the Machine, said Iacocca disregarded technicians’ concerns about many details surrounding the Pinto’s development.
The Pinto’s rapid development also meant the car’s tooling developed at the same time as the car itself. Tooling refers to the development of manufacturing tools and processes needed to mass produce the car. Changes to the vehicle would mean time consuming and expensive tooling alterations. Ford sold 328,275 Pintos in 1971, though 900 incidents involving death and injury would cast a pall over that success.
The Pinto contained a fuel tank positioned between the rear axle and rear bumper, per industry standards. The NHTSA proposed expanding crash safety standards to cover rear-end collisions in January 1969: 18 months into the Pinto’s development. Ford representatives stated they would meet a 20 miles per hour moving barrier standard for all its cars by 1973, though it and other automakers objected to more stringent fuel system safety standards.
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Popular Mechanics reported the Pinto’s fuel tank would rupture in rear-end crashes. The tank’s filler neck would tear away from the tank body, spilling fuel underneath the car. Bolts protruding from the nearby differential and right shock absorber would puncture the tank as well, spilling fuel and creating a fire hazard.
Automotive News wrote Ford knew about fuel tank flaws during the Pinto’s development, but company officials pushed ahead with production because assembly line machinery had already been tooled by the time engineers discovered the flaw. Mother Jones magazine wrote Iacocca’s insistence on a $2,000 price tag kept Ford from adding additional fuel tank protection, not even a $1 piece of plastic shielding the gas tank.
The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy non-profit group focuses on the U.S. automotive industry, petitioned the NHTSA in April 1974 to investigate the Ford Pinto’s fuel system after attorneys reported three deaths and four serious injuries after moderate speed rear-end collisions. However, the NHTSA declined to investigate the defect, citing a lack of evidence.
Investigative journalist Mark Dowie published the expose “Pinto Madness” in 1977 alleging Ford knew the Pinto was a “firetrap” and didn’t implement design changes because the company’s cost-benefit analysis determined court settlements and lawsuit damages would be less expensive than retooling. The day after that article’s release, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and the Center for Auto Safety formally asked the NHTSA to re-investigate the Pinto.
The NHTSA initiated its investigation on Aug. 11, 1977. Following almost a year of investigation and “worst case” crash testing, the NHTSA notified Ford on May 8, 1978 they considered the Pinto’s fuel system defective. Ford eventually recalled 1.5 million Ford Pintos and Mercury Bobcats on June 9, 1978, despite disagreeing with the NHTSA’s findings. The manufacturer placed a polyethylene shield between the tank and protruding bolts, lengthened the fuel tank’s filler tube and improved the tanks’ filler seal.
Though plaintiffs brought 117 lawsuits against Ford over the Pinto, two cases stand out: Grimshaw V. Ford Motor Co. and State of Indiana vs. Ford Motor Company. Grimshaw resulted in the plaintiff winning $127.8 million in total damages, the largest award in U.S. product liability and personal injury cases and the largest against an automaker at the time.
Indiana v. Ford saw a grand jury indict the automaker on three counts of reckless homicide, after three teenage girls in Osceola, Indiana died in a Pinto crash. Ford mounted a much more vigorous defense in Indiana v. Ford, spending $1 million on a legal staff of 80 against the Elkhart County state’s attorney’s budget of $20,000. The case marked the first time a corporation was charged with murder, though Ford was found not guilty in 1980.
The Ford Pinto left a tragic legacy for Ford and the American auto industry. Ford stopped building Pintos in 1980, and Ford chairman Henry Ford II fired Iacocca on July 13, 1978. Popular Mechanics would call the Pinto recall one of the most notorious of all time, and the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2010 the Grimshaw verdict signaled to the auto industry it would be “harshly sanctioned” for ignoring defects.
Despite the advancements in auto industry regulation and safety technology made since the days of the Ford Pinto, automakers sell thousands of defective vehicles every year in the United States. State lemon laws and the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act protect American consumers who inadvertently purchase these lemon cars. The lemon law attorneys of Allen Stewart, P.C. can help you navigate these laws and get you the just compensation you deserve.
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