We conclude our retrospective on the US Big Two’s somewhat compromised 1970 subcompact offerings, focusing today on the Ford Pinto and examining the controversy that engulfed it.
The Chevrolet Vega was an ambitious clean-sheet design, but Ford took a rather more pragmatic approach to the Pinto. In 1968, Ford President Lee Iacocca set targets of a sub-2,000 lbs weight, a sub-$2,000 entry price and an accelerated development time of just 25 months for the new subcompact.
To meet this challenge, the development team looked to Ford Europe for engines and found the existing 1.6 litre Kent in-line four and 2.8 litre Cologne V6. It also commissioned a new engine, a 2.0 litre in-line four with a belt-driven overhead camshaft that, although also used widely in European Fords, would become known as the Pinto engine.
The design was resolutely conventional, with RWD, a live rear axle mounted on leaf springs, and manual or automatic transmission. The Pinto was launched in September 1970 as a two-door fastback saloon. An identically profiled three-door hatchback, known as the Runabout, was launched in February 1971, followed by a three-door estate version a year later. The launch price for the saloon was $1,850. This undercut the Vega by a not insubstantial $240. The Pinto was only $71 more expensive than the primitive if robust VW Beetle.
Car and Driver compared a Vega and Pinto on a 15,000 mile long-term test in 1971. The Pinto was by far the nicer to drive around town. The highly optioned test car with the 2.0 litre engine, four-speed manual gearbox and disc brakes cost $2,511. It proved very manoeuvrable, aided by good visibility, a willing engine, slick gear change and strong (if heavy) brakes. It was, however, let down by really poor ventilation and poorly shaped, unsupportive seats. The brittle ride quality became apparent on longer journeys at highway speeds. Fuel economy was similar to the Vega at 22 to 23 mpg (US) and varied little with driving style.
There was a major flaw, however, with the Pinto’s cold-weather performance, when the engine was reluctant to start and ran very poorly or not at all. After checking for a sticking choke and incorrect carburettor set-up, the Ford technician was stumped until he contacted head office and was informed that this Pinto engine was one of a batch that had the camshaft installed 10° out of correct alignment! After some difficulty in finding a Ford dealer willing to acknowledge and rectify the fault, the improvement was transformational.
Overall, the Pinto was adjudged a far superior town car, but the Vega was rather better for highway use, because of the Pinto’s poor ride and backache inducing seats.
The Pinto got off to a flying start: 100,000 were sold by January 1971 and over 350,000 in its first year of production. There were, however, two early recalls, one to deal with a sticking accelerator pedal, the other to deal with petrol fumes in the air filter causing a fire risk.
As the range developed, Ford offered a number of cosmetic options for buyers to personalise their Pintos. This even included a faux-wood panelled version of the estate called the Squire. In 1974 the neat design was defaced by the addition of mandatory 5mph bumpers which stood proud of the bodywork, no attempt being made to integrate them. At the same time, the underpowered and unpopular Kent 1.6 litre engine was dropped and the Pinto engine enlarged to 2.3 litres. A Mercury version of the Pinto, known as the Bobcat, was introduced for the Canadian market and became available in the US in 1975.
A 1977 facelift gave the Pinto a sloping front end and new tail lights. A much more substantial facelift followed in 1979 when a rather heavy and ungainly front end with rectangular headlamps was imposed, ruining the integrity of the original design.
The Pinto was a consistently strong seller and a total of 3,173,491 cars were produced over a decade on the market. Its peak year was 1974, when 544,209 were produced. 224,026 Mercury Bobcats were also produced from 1974 to 1980. The car outlived and easily outsold the Vega yet, for most of its life and afterwards, the Pinto was the subject of considerable controversy.
The issue concerned the positioning of the fuel tank, behind the rear axle. This was pretty much the industry standard for larger cars, but the Pinto’s truncated tail meant the tank was positioned close to the rear valance. In a heavy rear-end impact, the tank could rupture and the petrol could ignite. This was because the filler neck could readily become detached and there were bolts in the differential casing that could puncture the tank if it were pushed forward forcibly.
During the Pinto’s development, there were no National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety tests for rear-end collisions, only for frontal impacts, and there was confusion as to what test standards might be applied thereafter. Moreover, the Chevrolet Vega and many other cars also had their fuel tanks located in exactly the same position.
In 1973, NHTSA was looking at tightening regulations to reduce the risk of fuel spillage in a rollover accident. Ford submitted a paper arguing against the change, using a cost/benefit analysis that explicitly placed a value* on the lives of those involved in such accidents. This may appear unpalatable, even callous, but it is a widely used and accepted practice in many fields of human endeavour. Moreover, Ford’s calculations covered all vehicles involved in such accidents and had nothing specifically to do with the Pinto.
In 1977, a copy of the paper was leaked to the plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit, Grimshaw v Ford Motor Co. concerning a fatal rear-end crash and fire involving a Pinto. The plaintiffs passed it onto a journalist, Mark Dowie, who wrote an investigative piece called Pinto Madness in which it was alleged that Ford was trading its customers’ lives for profit. The piece also alleged that up to 900 lives might have been lost because the Pinto’s design flaws and declared the car a ‘firetrap’.
The huge wave of publicity generated by the piece pressured the NHTSA into ordering an investigation and, in May 1978, it determined that the Pinto’s fuel system was defective. The report also determined that 27 deaths had occurred between 1970 and mid-1977 as a result of Pinto rear-end impacts that resulted in a fire, but it did not speculate as to how many might have survived had there been no fire.
Ford might have contested the determination, but decided that the adverse publicity was such that it would be better to acquiesce. A voluntary recall of 1.5 million cars was made and each was fitted with a polyethylene shield behind the fuel tank and modified fuel filler tube.
During the Grimshaw trial, Ford argued that it had acted legally by carrying out an industry-recognised cost/benefit analysis of the proposed changes, which showed that the cost would have been $137 million versus a benefit of $49.5 million in reduced deaths, injuries and damage. However, the cost to modify each Pinto was quoted at just $11, a very small amount.
The jury in the Grimshaw case, influenced by the latter figure, found in favour of the plaintiffs and awarded $125m in punitive damages. This was reduced on appeal by the judge to $3.5 million. In a subsequent case, Indiana v Ford Motor Co, Ford mounted a much more robust defence and won the case after a former NHTSA head testified that the Pinto was no more unsafe than similar cars on sale. Later academic statistical analysis would broadly support this assertion.
That conclusion does not, of course, exonerate Ford. The company was aware of the vulnerability and had the opportunity to mitigate it before the Pinto entered production, but failed to do so. That said, some of the ‘evidence’ circulating in the public arena about what drove Ford’s decision making was speculative, exaggerated and distorted. Ford’s reputation took a long time to recover from the debacle.
For those who wish to read more about the case, there is an excellent detailed analysis of the legal and product liability issues it raised here:
Mark Dowie’s Pinto Madness investigative piece may be found here:
* Critically, this was a societal value attributable to the life lost and not a calculation of compensation that Ford or any other automaker would have to pay out, although it was sometimes misrepresented as the latter. The benefit figures used by Ford in its calculations were actually industry-standard ones supplied by the NHTSA.