Subcompact and Substandard (Part Two)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

33 thoughts on “Subcompact and Substandard (Part Two)”

  1. Daniel – a good summary there, and a balanced view of the fuel tank issue – as you note Ford’s design followed industry practice at the time, but the risk was exacerbated for a smaller and less substantial vehicle.

    It’s strange that – for marketing purposes at least – the 1970 Pinto was benchmarked against a rather odd rear-engined car first revealed in the mid-1930s, while the small Japanese cars starting to make significant inroads in North America were modelled on the orthodoxy set by small European Fords and Opels.

    Unlike GM, US Ford made good use of European componentry and experience – Kent and Essex engines, Taunus 20M gearbox. They even applied the neat trick, also used on the Capri, of having one shock absorber behind the rear axle and one in front as a means of mitigating axle tramp at no cost.

    Perhaps the most perplexing departure from normal Ford practice is the use of double wishbones for the Pinto’s front suspension rather than MacPherson struts. Double wishbones also featured on the Mk.3-onwards Cortina and the European Granada. It’s never been satisfactorily explained – In Ford’s case such things are usually cost-led, despite what they might tell us in justification of an engineering decision.

  2. Thank you for that balanced assessment, Daniel.

    I always find it sad that Ford took the decisions they did with the Pinto, as they were safety leaders in the late 50’s with their Cornell-Liberty safety research and the ‘Lifeguard’ package which they offered.

    They also apparently ignored the lessons learned from cost cutting with GM’s Corvair.

    1. Thanks Robertas and Charles for your comments and the video. We all (myself included) tend to think we know the Pinto fuel tank story, given the vast amount of publicity it generated at the time and afterwards. It is easy to fall into the simplistic trap of concluding that Ford wouldn’t spend just an extra $11 on each Pinto potentially to save a life. I have tried to explain that the legal and ethical aspects were much more complex and nuanced than that.

      At the risk of appearing to monetise the value of a life, let’s look at some numbers specifically relating to the Puma (and Bobcat):

      Total Pinto and Bobcat sales over the decade they were on sale were 3,397,517. The total cost of the modifications, at $11 per car, would have been $37.3 million.

      The NHTSA estimated that there had been 27 deaths in approximately seven years as a result of rear-end collisions resulting in a fire. That would equate to 39 over the full decade (had the cars not been modified). Let’s assume the same number of serious injuries and written-off vehicles. The NHTSA placed an ‘societal value’ of $200,000 on each life lost, $67,000 for each person seriously injured and $700 for each vehicle written off. If we multiply each of these numbers by 39 and add the totals together, we get a total value of $10.4 million.

      On the basis of those numbers, Ford could reasonably argue that it was justified in not spending an extra $37.3 million for a gain to society of $10.4 million.

      Of course, this calculation is wholly dependent on the ‘societal values’ one chooses. We might regard setting such values as distasteful or even callous. Alternatively, if you take the view that each human life is priceless then, theoretically, you should spend an infinite amount of money to protect that life from harm. This would clearly make any human activity that involves a risk to life completely unviable.

      Its an interesting ethical and moral dilemma to which there are no easy or difinitive answers.

  3. Thanks for the nuanced article about the Pinto, Daniel. There’s one driving around in the village where my mom lives, but other than that I can’t recall having ever seen one. As for the Vega, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

    1. Hi Freerk. Thanks for your kind words. I remember occasionally seeing a tatty looking Pinto or Vega in the US in the early 90’s, but not since. I guess there was little affection for them so the vast majority were scrapped relatively early.

  4. One slightly odd (to me, anyway) option offered from 1977 onward on the Runabout (hatchback) version was an all-glass hatchback. Here’s the standard version:

    And the optional version:

    The rear visibility gains must have marginal, against an even higher loading lip, so I can’t see the point.

    1. I couldn’t help but notice the Dutch license plate on the standard Pinto. The one I know is white, so there are at least two Pintos in the Netherlands. As I type this I can’t help but think of that other small American car, the AMC Pacer. Every now and then I would see one of those, but none in the area where I lived, which is strange considering the village where I grew up had a garage that sold AMC’s. I’d stumble upon the occassional AMC Eagle, though. They also sold Ladas, Zastavas and Hondas, a very interesting and unusual collection of brands, I reckon. Honda is still sold in the Netherlands, although only in very small numbers, the rest is gone, but that’s another story altogether.

  5. Seeing the red Pinto on the right in the second photo, my first thought was “Austin Princess”!

    1. Hi John. I see what you mean. I think it’s the slope of the rear window and the chrome-rimmed horizontal rear light units that does it, from a distance at least. The vinyl roof also reminds one of the vinyl-wrapped C-pillars on the Princess.

  6. Even as late as 1979 Ford was still on the defensive about the Pinto’s petrol tank problems. Take a look at the last paragraph in this press advertisement:

    I think that the revised front end really is a candidate for the facelift hall of shame. It looks far too heavy and blocky for the rest of the car.

    1. Interestingly, critics of the Pinto pointed to the 1969 European Capri as having it’s fuel tank in a much safer position, above the rear axle:

      Of course, the Capri Mk1 wasn’t a hatchback and had a solid rear bulkhead against which the fuel tank could be positioned. When the 1974 Mk2 was launched with a hatchback, the fuel tank was relocated to behind the rear axle:

      Presumably, it was better protected from rear end impact than that of the original Pinto.

    2. Hello John,

      I wondered that. As someone said on DTW, recently, quite a few cars had fuel tanks as part of the rear structure, or at the rear of the car, in past decades. My first car was a Vauxhall Chevette, and it’s fuel tank was at the rear (I never thought about it).

      I know the SAAB 96 had its tank well forward, under the rear seat.

      As far as I’m aware, the New Car Assessment Programme in Europe (Euro NCAP) doesn’t include a rear impact test on vehicle structures, which seems odd, on reflection.

    3. The Saab 96 has an H-beam rear axle with the fuel tank between the wheels, well out of the crumple zone.

      VW made much noise about the NSU K70 being the first car with the fuel tank under the rear seat.
      Both is much easier to do with an fwd car because there is free space in the rear.
      The world had to wait for the BMW E21 as the first rwd car with the tank under the rear seat and the propshaft going through the tank.

  7. The Rover SD1 launch promo boasted of a fuel tank ahead of the rear axle, that was under the rear seats (1976). I can’t help thinking it’d have to be panniered somehow to clear the diff. NB it had a folding rear seat, so the Capri location wasn’t an option for it.

    1. Hi Richard. Unfortunately, I can’t find a decent cutaway drawing of the SD1, but here’s the fuel tank:

      It sat ahead of the rear axle to the left of the prop-shaft, so it was mainly underneath the rear seat base.

  8. Will this do?

    That horizontal seam often opened up as a result of corrosion, a devil to fix. Filling the tank no more than half full was the usual answer for impoverished owners who bought their SD1s for cheap V8 muscle.

    1. Perfect, Robertas, thank you. The fuel tank is in grey on the far side, just ahead of the axle. You can see the sender for the fuel gauge on the raised part ahead of the coil spring.

  9. Has the United States EVER made a decent small – and I mean by their standards – car?

    The only one I can think of is the Dodge / Plymouth Neon – not a world beater, but capable and appealing; how could it be otherwise with its Castaing and Lutz parentage?

    1. I think the 1991-96 North American Escort was well regarded, certainly more so than its European contemporary. Maybe it shouldn’t be considered an American car, though, since it was a rebodied Mazda 323.

      As for the first gen Neon, it was very popular with the tuner crowd when I was in my early twenties; at least with those who eschewed Japanese “rice rockets.” Although they were everywhere in the mid 90s, I stopped seeing unmodified examples by the early 00s and haven’t seen a single one of any sort in more than a decade.

  10. That 91-96 Escort was a decent effort. I remember it as as the Laser / Meteor, a proper Australian Ford, when Holden were sticking ‘Nova’ badges on Corollas (The previous two Laser generations were almost unaltered Australian-assembled 323s ). But, as Ben says Mazda had done the difficult work.

    The US/Canada Chevette seems to have avoided the tribulations of its Vega predecessor, but it was a relative latecomer to Project 909, with most of the hard work already done by Opel and Isuzu. Nothing about it to charm, or stir the blood – it was never more than a cheap bucket for people who couldn’t afford, or didn’t need, anything better.

  11. That original Pinto 2.0l engine was apparently made in both the UK as well as Cologne. The Cortina Mk 111 imported into Canada with the 2.0l engine never had any problems, and those cars lasted for years, even though Ford dealers shunned them as oddballs after a few years. Only 1971 and some ’72 models made it to Canada. The Pinto was supposed to be a substitute. Yes, I now, the PR mind at deep and serious work rewriting reality.

    My parents decided to visit England in 1970 with my youngest brother in tow since I was there studying, and rented an Escort 1300 deluxe automatic and for three weeks we “did” the South coast. Nice car, and I did most of the driving. While there, another brother destroyed the family, actually my mother’s, Volvo back home. So they returned home and I did the then obligatory backpack tour of Europe spending most time in Greece prior to really getting down to graduate work. The following autumn of 1971 I went back to Canada for a visit, and was interested in driving the “new” Pinto. I still read Car and Driver in London because all newsagents sold it, so after finding this particular lightweight 2.0l Pinto was a rattly slug, I remembered what Daniel has highlighted in this article — very good catch by the way!

    C/D later had a whole page article with illustrations some months later on exactly how to check the camshaft position, and five minutes later with the aid of a ruler, I was able to verify German quality. The cam was out of sync. The affable French Canadian dealer service manager pooh-poohed me, but read the article and passed it to his parts man. Well, whaddya know? Buried in his unread Service Updates was a page on the problem. Half-an-hour later, I was driving a peppy new Pinto! The service manager was shaking his head, and the repair was free. A pity the rest of the car did not match up to an Escort 1300 deluxe in any fashion, or come close to the 1300GT I was transported with every day during 1971 at my work experience in Cambridgeshire. The Pinto was cheap crud made out of old parts in the suspension as Ford touted in its ads at the time, mostly Fairlane front wishbones (oversized for durability!) and some old narrowed rear axle on very short leaf springs. The ratio of sprung to unsprung weight was on the very low side, which led to a very poor ride.

    However, Ford did make incremental improvements to this rolling heap of dross with the passing years. While my parents’ vehicle rusted like the blazes, when I returned for good to Canada in ’74, a new friend I met had a ’74 wagon. You wouldn’t believe it was the same car, it was so much improved — it actually had suspension travel for a start. The Lima 2.3l engine made in Lima Ohio as an update on the original 2.0l was torquey but prone to severe pinging on no-lead fuel. This character was also present in my brother’s ’79 Mustang, and so a rattler the engine would remain for decades. But durable, and in the ’83 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, pretty darn rapid – now that WAS a nice car indeed. My friend who’d had the Pinto wagon and the bucking surging ’80 US goofball looking ruination of the Escort treated himself a nice one with that Thunderbird. It looked fantastic as well. I was in that original ’74 Pinto Wagon a few years later when the timing belt snapped. Thank goodness for non-interference valves. And the later Pinto didn’t rust as badly, so I’d place it above the Vega in overall suitability for purpose.

    My parents’ Pinto did not survive 1975, rusting into oblivion. I drove it for the first five months that year, and it seemed down on power again, but the cam positioning was fine. Then I discovered the new problem after reading a tip in another magazine. Yes, sure enough, a peer down the oil-filler in the cam cover showed me mushroomed cam lobes, the metal hanging flakily off the sides of them from the squashing. 1970 German quality had struck again. So the thing had detuned itself with a cam not having properly hardened lobes and giving lower valve lift as it gradually mashed itself to death. That car was a quality nightmare from beginning to end.

    The gas tank furore came later, and I couldn’t have cared less. To prove it was no fluke, Ford police cars of the humongously huge Crown Victoria size were cited in the 1990s for catching fire when rammed in the rear by bad guys and inattentive drivers when the cars were parked on the road side with officers issuing speeding tickets. That was the 1990s, so Ford knew what to do by then — add a plastic bandage and cut off protruding nuts. Actuaries still plied their trade at FoMoCo.

    US Ford, for when you want something better! They cannot seem to hang doors, bonnets or tailgates square this past decade since they ditched Mazda who used to occupy their Detroit Flat Rock plant and make cars for them like the Probe. Their Hermosillo factory in Mexico also makes reasonable vehicles, it’s just your average US plant like Chicago Assembly that churns out junk. Or the useless Oakville plant in Canada that assembles the Edge. But the F150 truck, their flagship profit maker, is still turned out to a decent standard in specialty factories, so someone there realizes that little separates Ford from corporate doom except the boffo sales of this minor bus. Like Jeep/FCA and Peugeot SA, their Chinese sales fell off a cliff prior to the pandemic, which should keep someone awake at night, but probably doesn’t. They’ve always been first out of the gate complaining about Japan not importing American cars, while exporting their own to the US. Name me a hundred Japanese who want an F150 truck or a haphazardly assembled Escape/Kuga. Ford are desperately parochially mid-Western American in outlook. But with their current president Hackett nicknamed Professor Moonbeam and the self-absorbed Farley as 2IC, you have to wonder for the future, and especially how they’ll treat their European operations. Read this and you’ll scratch your head:

    Yes, indeed, that’s Ford for you these days.

    1. Hi Bill. Many thanks for sharing your personal experience of the Pinto. In particular, it’s good to have confirmation of the camshaft misalignment story. It sounded so unlikely that I mightn’t have included it if it had come from a less reputable source than Car and Driver.

      Thanks also for the link to the Autoextremist piece. It’s very sad to read that, as well as your own downbeat assessment of Ford’s position and prospects in North America.

      I’m a big fan of US cars, which are, I think, perfectly suited to North American driving conditions and I always choose American over imports at the car rental counter. Who really cares if the interior fittings are a bit less ‘premium’ than in an uptight Audi? Driving a Mustang convertible along the Pacific Coast Highway, top down with the sun shining, is the nearest I’ve ever got to heaven! Over the years, I’ve driven thousands of miles in the US and have never had a single problem with any of my (newish, but usually hard used) rental cars.

      There’s recently been gossip about Ford following GM and pulling out of Europe. That would be very sad, especially as they are building some pretty good cars these days.

    2. Of interest, the Mark 3 Cortina was offered in Canada through 1973. The ’73 had an awkwardly extended front bumper with a filler panel to meet the new 5 mph bumper standard. An image search will bring up photos of what may be the sole remaining example.

      By this time, the Cortina was mainly sold by the Lincoln-Mercury dealer network – the ’74 Canada-only Bobcat was introduced as its replacement.

    3. Hi Stu. Thanks for dropping by, and for the information. Is this the example you mention?

      That’s a really homespun looking front bumper extension.

  12. Same here, Daniel. My last rental car in the States was a 2019 Camaro Convertible. The car had less than 400 miles on the clock when I got and I doubled that easily within a day. While there were no ‘premium’ interior fittings to be found I totally loved it. The only real downside to the Camaro is the poor visibility, especially when the roof is in place.

    I’ve driven a Ram 1500 in Finland and it was a very good companion on the dirt roads. Back in Helsinki the dimensions of the pick-up truck are a bit of a nuisance when you have to park it, though.

    1. I’m so jealous, Freerk! Last time we were on the West Coast, we had a choice between a bright red Camaro convertible or a bright blue Mustang convertible. Having had Mustangs previously, I opted for the Camaro, only to discover that the boot opening was so narrow that, once we got the first suitcase in, we couldn’t get the second in. It was really annoying, as there would have been plenty of room in the boot for both. Anyway, we made a quick switch to the Mustang, which was still very nice:

  13. Returning to the Pinto’s fuel tank issues, back in the 60’s and 70’s the fuel filler cap was often found on the rear panel, sometimes hidden behind a hinged rear number plate. Even Mercedes-Benz used to do this:

    I can think of two cars that were modified during their production life to relocate the fuel filler from the the rear panel to the wing, the Hillman/Chrysler Avenger and BMW E12 generation 5 Series. Were there any others? (I’m not thinking of replacement models so changed.)

    1. Well done, Dave. I might have guessed that if anybody knew, it would be you. Here are the pre and post-facelift models:

      Given that the relocated filler is still rather close to the rear of the car, I imagine the change was made for asthetic rather than safety reasons. The exposed cap on the earlier car looked a bit utilitarian. At least the young lady in the second photo looks to be very impressed with the improvement…😁

    1. Those are features I’ve always enjoyed. Lovely collection of fuel filler cap hidings, Daniel, thanks for sharing.

    2. The Peugeot 403 has its fuel filler neck in the left rear light. The Kadert C used a fake ventilation outlet as a fuel filler flap.

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