Ford’s Poor Little Exploding Car

Once a wild success, the Pinto has become a symbol of corporate greed trumping public safety. But have we gotten it all wrong?

Sohan Choudhury
Sep 16, 2019 · 11 min read
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Illustration by Rounak Bhunia.

An American comeback story

1970. The Ford Pinto was an innovative car. Compact, sleek, a breath of fresh air amongst the gas-guzzling behemoths that had clogged Detroit’s assembly lines for decades. Finally, a homegrown alternative to the Corollas and Beetles that infested the nation’s suburbs. The Pinto bore a fighting spirit — it was a valiant American effort to compete in a subcompact market that had flourished thanks to rising fuel costs.

Pinto ads at the time highlighted the affordability and functionality of the new vehicle.

Just a few years prior, Ford President Lee Iacocca had issued a clear directive: the company was to develop a car that would cost around $2,000 and weigh about 2,000 pounds to better meet changing consumer preferences. From the drawing board to the showroom, the Pinto was shaping up to be quite the value proposition. Adjusted for inflation, around $13,000 would get you a reliable sedan that could seat five, fuel economy that wouldn’t break the bank, and notably, a rather accommodating trunk.

Ford had adjusted to the demands of the time in creating a product that customers wanted — no small feat for an automotive incumbent. Sales were pushing past half a million per year soon after the initial launch, making the Pinto the best-selling vehicle in its class. Just as the spirited little car (and everything it represented) was realizing an American comeback story, it all went up in flames.

Richard Grimshaw

May, 1972. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have purchased the now-iconic Pinto. A young Californian woman by the name of Lily Gray is one of them. As she attempts to merge onto the freeway with 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw as her passenger, the Pinto unexpectedly stalls. It’s then struck from behind by another vehicle at 28 miles per hour, immediately rupturing the fuel tank. From that point on, the fate of the two passengers is sealed.

Vapors from the leaking tank quickly enter the air in the passenger compartment. A spark ignites the mixture, exploding the Pinto into a ball of fire. When the two victims finally emerge from the flaming wreck, most of their clothes have been scorched away. Gray dies in agony hours later in an emergency room. Grimshaw is left gruesomely burned over most of his body. Doctors perform grafts using the few unscarred portions of his skin, but despite numerous surgeries, the teenager is left permanently disfigured.

This tragic accident sparked a series of events that has entrenched the Pinto in infamy ever since. Grimshaw went to court against Ford, filing a lawsuit that alleged the Pinto was a fundamentally unsafe car that was especially vulnerable to rear-impact collisions. In order to substantiate such a damning claim before the jury, the plaintiffs knew that they would have to draw public attention to potential dangers of the Pinto.

Searching far and wide for any evidence of Ford’s culpability, the Grimshaw lawyers found just the low-hanging fruit that could bolster their case: a company memo that placed a dollar value on human life.

The Memo

The infamous Pinto memo.
The infamous Pinto memo.
A reproduced version of the Pinto memo.

Sounds shocking, right?

The memo, replicated above, was part of a report that Ford had drafted at the request of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA was looking to understand the societal and economic costs associated with increasing fuel system safety standards — specifically for subcompact vehicles like the Pinto.

As a result, Ford used cost-benefit analysis, a common practice in industry at the time. The company estimated that to add safety features to better protect fuel tanks from rupturing, it would cost them about:

12.5 million vehicles x ($11 per vehicle) = $137 million

Next, based off of available data at the time, Ford projected that maintaining the status quo of lax fuel system safety standards would result in a further

  • 2,100 burned vehicles
  • 180 serious burn injuries,
  • and 180 burn deaths.

Using NHTSA figures, Ford went on to determine the cost to society of each burned car at $700, each burn injury at $67,000, and each life lost at $200,000. This comprised the remaining portion of the memo:

2,100 x ($700) + 180 x ($67,000) + 180 x ($200,000) = $49.5 million

Without any of the aforementioned context, it’s easy to view these calculations as an instance of immoral decision making. If Ford knew that their vehicles — including the Pinto — could kill people, why would they decide to sell them?

To the public, a car is either is or isn’t faulty. To an engineer, imperfections and compromises are inevitable. The Pinto was no different.

Such a line of thinking aligns perfectly with a common narrative: corporations methodically place their bottom-line above the public good. In order to understand whether this was the case with respect to the Pinto, however, we’ve got to take a look at the facts.

This “shocking” memo was produced in 1972 — a full two years after the Pinto had hit showrooms, meaning that the cost-benefit analysis had not influenced the fuel system design of the vehicle in any way.

Furthermore, although Ford could have technically chosen to place a greater emphasis on the safety of the Pinto, historical context shows us that the overwhelming understanding was that the industry’s obligations were limited to safety during “normal operations,” of which accidents were not a part. Just consider the opinion of a federal court at the time.

“The intended purpose of an automobile does not include its participation in collisions with other objects, despite the manufacturer’s ability to foresee the possibility that such collisions may occur… [manufacturers] also know that their automobiles may be driven into bodies of water, but it is not suggested that they have a duty to equip them with pontoons.”

The memo was, at its core, a product of the social and institutional environment of the time. Even the most basic analysis makes this quite clear. Despite this, the document soon took on a life of its own.

Pinto Madness

The Mother Jones magazine cover of the “Pinto Madness” issue.

The memo was passed on by the Grimshaw lawyers to Mark Dowie, an investigative journalist at progressive news magazine Mother Jones. Just as Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. went to trial, Dowie published a sensationalist exposé: “Pinto Madness.”

Written in an immediate post-Watergate period where journalists were engaged in a social movement against white collar crime, “Pinto Madness” emphasized organizational conspiracy and immoral calculation. The narrative that Dowie crafted painted the Pinto as a fundamentally unsafe car, and Ford as an evil corporation.

“Pinto Madness” was wonderfully cohesive, and went as follows:

  • Iacocca’s $2,000 cost and 2,000 pound weight directives encouraged a culture of placing business targets above standard engineering design.
  • This resulted in the fuel tank of the Pinto being positioned behind the rear axle, which, according to safety tests, made it prone to rupturing.
  • Ford knew of the defect — yet motivated by profits, ultimately used a cost-benefit analysis to justify not adding extra protective features to the fuel tank.
  • Grimshaw was just one of many victims of Ford’s corporate greed, as conservative estimates put Pinto burn deaths at 500 individuals.

As convincing as it may seem, don’t let the narrative fool you. “Pinto Madness” is a textbook example of biased and inaccurate journalism.

Nearly every single aforementioned element of the article is riddled with falsities and designed to be misleading. When Dowie claims, for instance, that the placement of the Pinto’s fuel tank made it prone to rupturing, he fails to mention that the car’s safety test performance had both passed NHTSA guidelines and beaten the results of similar subcompact vehicles.

The placement of the Pinto’s fuel tank, cited by Dowie as evidence of dangerous design, was commonplace for vehicles during the period.

Even within Ford, had employees really believed that the Pinto was a firetrap — do you think that the chief systems engineer’s wife would be driving one? She did, along with many other Pinto engineers.

Additionally, Dowie erroneously states that the memo was created before the Pinto’s release. As we’ve discussed before, the document was produced after the release of the car, and was in line with norms of the time. There was no evidence to suggest that Ford had made a deliberate calculation during the design of the Pinto that compromised safety.

Up until the publication of “Pinto Madness,” Ford’s best-selling subcompact had been considered relatively safe. Although the details of the Grimshaw case were tragic, not a single piece of evidence could be found for Dowie’s most damning claim — that “conservative” estimates put Pinto burn deaths at 500 individuals.

Subsequent data-driven analysis offers the clearest picture. In the 1975–76 period, Pintos represented 1.9% of all cars on the road. During that time, they represented exactly 1.9% of all “fatal accidents accompanied by some fire.”

The Pinto was slightly above average for safety when compared to cars of its class, and, in an ironic twist, significantly better than imports such as the Corolla and the Beetle.

With reckless disregard for the truth, Dowie preached to the world that Ford had sacrificed safety at the altar of corporate profits. Shockingly, the world listened.

Despite its gross inaccuracies and inherent bias (keep in mind that Dowie was working with the Grimshaw lawyers who had a vested interest in painting the Pinto as an unsafe vehicle), “Pinto Madness” went on to become the de facto public narrative.

It was here that the true madness began.

Reckless Homicide

The Pinto quickly became a firetrap in the eyes of the public.

By the time Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. went to trial, Ford had been swept up in a firestorm of controversy. Reputable media outlets echoed Dowie’s false claims, tarnishing the Pinto’s reputation.

Ford watched helplessly as their defense crumbled. The jury, fueled by public outrage, went on to award $127.8 million in total damages in the absence of any proof of the Pinto’s allegedly poor crashworthiness. This was the largest award against an automaker at the time, and the largest ever in any U.S. product liability and personal injury case.

In another unprecedented case, Indiana v. Ford Motor Co., Ford was indicted by a grand jury on three counts of reckless homicide. It was the first time a corporation was charged with murder.

As public pressure mounted, the NHTSA, having originally green-lit the Pinto, suddenly found itself in the limelight. The agency’s internal reports had hitherto raised no concerns — there were only 27 documented fire-related Pinto deaths. By comparison, there had also been 27 Pinto deaths caused by an unrelated transmission problem, yet no public controversy to go with it.

By this stage, however, narrative had usurped data. The NHTSA faced an existential threat thanks to the Pinto.

With each passing day of inaction, public trust in the agency was being quickly eroded. Without it, its very function would be rendered futile.

Just like the juries in Grimshaw and Indiana, the NHTSA succumbed to the madness.

Bullet Car

An initial investigation into the Pinto’s fuel tank integrity, which included industry-standard safety tests, concluded that the car had no “recallable” problem. The public was not satisfied.

So the NHTSA launched a second investigation. In a desperate bid to save its image, the agency knew it would have to do anything necessary to make the Pinto fail.

At the center of this new investigation was a novel worst-case safety test.

The usual moving barrier was done away with. In its place: intentionally selected was a large and particularly rigid “bullet car” that would hit the Pinto’s rear end.

The fateful crash test.

The bullet car’s nose was weighed down so that it would slide under the Pinto and maximize gas tank contact.

The bullet car’s headlights were turned on to provide a ready source of ignition.

The fuel tanks in both vehicles were completely filled with gasoline rather than the non-flammable fluid normally used in such tests.

This wasn’t a safety test as much as it was a murder. The NHTSA shot the Pinto, and breathed a sigh of relief when it burst into flames.

Poor little exploding car.

Ugly truth

The story of the Ford Pinto has always fascinated me. I first came across it in an engineering ethics textbook last year, but not in the form that you’ve just read. Instead of highlighting the flaws of the public firestorm as well the NHTSA’s shocking response, the textbook simply echoed “Pinto Madness.”

That’s right: nearly 50 years after the whole fiasco, it appears that the de facto narrative on the subject hasn’t changed one bit. The Pinto case has become a landmark one — propagated through documentaries, classrooms, and philosophy circles — but for all the wrong reasons.

Before the public firestorm, the Pinto was on a path to replicate the success of Ford’s original budget vehicle: the Model A.

To this day, the now-infamous memo is falsely characterized as an example of Ford’s corporate greed, and true Pinto death statistics are often ignored. It’s as if the “Pinto Madness” narrative has been cemented as reality.

In my view, this all speaks to a fundamental human observation: we are terrible with the truth.

The truth is ugly. There are seldom protagonists and antagonists — it’s much more complicated than that. In any controversy you consider, there is a world of interactions and stakeholders at play. When you start to break these down, the distinction between good and bad quickly blurs.

When it comes to the Pinto, despite the benefit of hindsight, we’ve largely failed to tell the full truth. It’s been all too easy to follow Dowie’s lead in vilifying Ford. In doing so, however, we’ve effectively insulated ourselves from the lessons history teaches us.

With the benefit of a modern perspective that takes vehicle safety for granted, perhaps what we really should learn from are the horrifying safety standards of the Pinto era, and how the government systematically failed to protect its citizens.

If we were to imagine a world where the NHTSA implemented more stringent safety standards instead of just scapegoating the Pinto due to public outrage, wouldn’t that have yielded better net results for consumers? Perhaps we would be driving modern iterations of the Pinto today, alongside all-too-common Corollas and Beetles.

Vintage ad, happy family with Ford Pinto.
Vintage ad, happy family with Ford Pinto.
Nowadays, it’s easy to forget that the Pinto was once a popular car ingrained into the lives of millions of American families — and rightfully so.

As we know, the NHTSA did nothing of the sort. The agency forced Ford to recall 1.5 million Pintos in order to “end public concern.”

The once valiant import fighter faded into infamy, brought down by the very society it was designed to serve. The least we can do is remember its legacy accurately.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to follow me / check out BOOST for more.


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