Category Archives: Cars

The Pinto Turns 40

Okay, if you you owned a Pinto, raise your hand. Come on – you can do it. We know you are out there hiding in the closet of subcompact shame. But take heart, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Rejoice in the fact that you didn’t flambe’ in your car and take a look back at a time when less was more.

In 1971, to fend off the onslaught of Asian imports, American auto makers rolled out their various responses.  The AMC Gremlin and the Chevrolet Vega (the Vega program was managed by John DeLorean – yes THAT John DeLorean.) rolled off the factory floor to a generation ready to place value and economy above space and performance.

Ford’s Pinto was the low-end of the low-end. A low hp baby brother to the storied Mustang.

Actually having the Mustang in the same conversation as the Pinto is akin to comparing super models to soccer moms. Yes they are both cars, yes they have four tires and an engine, but the relationship pretty well ends right there. The Mustang survived… the Pinto didn’t.

Well, that is except for a few enthusiasts who will strap into their rolling sterno cans tomorrow for the Pinto Stampede. It’s a five-day excursion across America’s midsection, from Denver to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Pintos will pour into Ford’s National Car Show by the hundreds (er… dozens?).

But there is a dark side to the story. Separating the truth from hysteria requires a degree in advanced statistics, a Cray computer and inside knowledge that by now is buried deep in the bowels of some think tank along the Potomac. For you youngsters that aren’t familiar with the story, the Pinto’s were allegedly prone to combustion should they take a direct rear end collision.

A paper written in 1991 for the Rutgers Law Review by Gary Swartz titled “The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case,” cast doubt on the hundreds of deaths attributed to the little car. In fact, using data freely available at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the author thinks the true number is actually closer to 27. Given the production numbers of the Pinto between 1971 and 1980, this would rank it about middle of the road for similar class vehicles for safety.

Whatever the truth is, one of the most damaging documents to ever come out of Ford was the so-called “Ford Pinto Memo.” The document highlighted an extensive cost-benefit analysis where the powers to be calculated the cost to recall and install an $11 shield in the 12.5 million Pintos sold. The document verified that the problem was well-known at the Ford Motor Company. But it gets worse. (Mother Jones 1977 article – Pinto madness)

The conclusion was it would save Ford millions of dollars to simply pay the claims in loss-of-life events than to undertake said repairs. Wrap your head around that for a little bit.

Ford ended the Pinto’s production in 1980. The Pinto gave way to the Escort and ultimately the Fiesta. Considering the state of the Auto Industry in America, you have to believe the lumps the company took over the Pinto forged their will to do things better. When competition was falling by the wayside, Ford kept on strong.