Soon after the Ford Motor Company introduced the Pinto to the public in 1970, the inexpensive subcompact model became one of the most popular cars in the United States. However, by the end of the decade, the Pinto had earned a reputation as a "firetrap." The car's fuel tank could explode if the car was involved in a rear-end collision - a danger that Ford engineers were aware of but failed to address.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration first received pressure to force Ford to recall all Pintos as early as 1974, but it wasn't until early 1978 - shortly after a jury awarded a badly disfigured driver $128 million in damages - that the automotive company finally gave in to the pressure to take the cars out of service.
Sadly, this decision came too late for the dozens, possibly even hundreds, of people killed or injured in these rear-end collisions. And although Ford was able to survive the Pinto scandal, the company's reputation took a major public relations hit. For years, Ford was widely considered to be more interested in making a profit than it was in passenger safety. Meanwhile, the Pinto has gone down in history as one of the worst automobiles ever produced.
Ford Executives Knew About The Car's Defects But Ignored Them
Ford introduced the Pinto to the world in 1970. Although company officials later denied this under oath, evidence suggests that Ford ran multiple crash tests on the car and was well aware of the potential safety issues prior to its public roll-out.
Every single test that was made at a speed of at least 25 mph - on a car that had not been structurally altered - resulted in the car's fuel tank being ruptured. Of the 11 total tests that were completed prior to the Pinto's released, there were only three where the fuel tank didn't rupture.
In each of those three tests, the car's structure had been altered. In one, a plastic baffle was placed between the tank and the differential housing - keeping the bolts on the housing from puncturing the tank; in another, a piece of steel was placed between the tank and the rear bumper; and in the third, the fuel tank was lined with a rubber bladder.
Ford decided against making any of these simple, inexpensive structural alterations to the Pinto before it made the car available to the world.
Ford President Lee Iacocca Was Obsessed With Creating The Perfect Compact Car
If Lee Iacocca had lost his power struggle with Semon "Bunky" Knudsen in the late 1960s, there's a good chance that the Ford Pinto never would have been manufactured.
At the time, Iacocca was a fast-rising executive at Ford who argued that the company would lose the American compact market to the German and Japanese automobile manufacturers if Ford didn't come up with its own alternative to the VW Beetle.
Knudsen, who was Ford's president, was content to let the Japanese and German manufacturers own the compact market, in part because Ford dominated the American market for medium- and large-sized cars.
Iacocca won the battle, and when Knudsen resigned shortly thereafter, Iacocca was named company president. He then quickly moved forward with his plan to develop a compact car that could rival the German and Japanese models.
Product Development Of The Pinto Was One Of The Shortest In Automotive History
From a car's initial conception to its final production, the standard time frame is approximately 43 months. However, because Iacocca was determined to have the Ford Pinto in showrooms with other 1971 models (that is, in the fall of 1970), the schedule was set at slightly less than 25 months. This is thought to be one of the shortest time frames for developing and releasing a car in automotive history.
In a standard production schedule, the tooling process - the process of designing a tool to produce each individual part of a car - doesn't usually begin until the design for each part has been finalized and the engineers are sure that all the parts will work together properly. Because the time frame for the Pinto was so condensed, the tooling process (which generally takes around 18 months to complete) took place at the same time as the product development. So, the tooling was already far along by the time the crash tests revealed the dangerous defect in the fuel tank.
When the defect was discovered, no one told Iacocca. An anonymous Ford executive who had worked as an engineer on the Pinto told Mother Jones magazine:
That person [who might have warned Iacocca] would have been fired. Safety wasn’t a popular subject around Ford in those days. With Lee it was taboo. Whenever a problem was raised that meant a delay on the Pinto, Lee would chomp on his cigar, look out the window and say, "Read the product objectives and get back to work."
One objective that Iacocca would not budge on was that the Pinto would not be allowed to weigh more than 2,000 pounds or cost more than $2,000. These "limits of 2,000" meant that the lightweight, $11 piece of plastic that had proven in crash tests to prevent the fuel tank from puncturing was left out of the final design.
In the initial marketing campaign for the Pinto, it was "the little carefree car."
The ads spoke about how the Pinto could free its owner from worrying about things like the vehicle's price, high gas bills, and maintenance costs, and attempted to show how this car was better than similar-sized import cars.