BY WILLIAM DOMHOFF
University of California, Santa Cruz

 

The Pinto

The Car Nobody Loved but Everybody Bought


The Ford Pinto was a subcompact car manufactured by the Ford Motor Company for the North American market, first introduced in 1971, and built through the 1980 model year. Its legacy is best remembered for its safety problems (see below). Like many Ford cars, it had a "twin": in the Pinto's case, the Mercury Bobcat, introduced in Canada in 1974 and then in the U.S. for 1975. The Pinto was introduced in the same time frame as the Chevrolet Vega and AMC Gremlin in the new American subcompact car class. Although the previously introduced Ford Maverick was initially compared with the Volkswagen Beetle, it was still designed around a V6 or V8 motor, with an interior featuring two bench seats. The Pinto was aimed squarely at small 4 cylinder imports such as the Beetle and Toyota Corolla. Though the Vega and sometimes even the Gremlin would win higher magazine ratings, the Pinto was the most successful of the U.S. designs. The Pinto was also the starting point for the downsized Mustang II pony car. Pintos were built in St. Thomas, Ontario, Edison, New Jersey, and in California.

For many years Ford sold small models from its British line as captive imports, including the Ford Cortina which somewhat resembled a reduced Ford Falcon. The Pinto's design began in 1968 under the direction of Ford executive Lee Iacocca. The Pinto would be later complemented by the imported, but even smaller front wheel drive Ford Fiesta, and formally replaced by the more modern Escort, patterned after the technically advanced front-drive Volkswagen Rabbit, for the 1981 model year.

Compared with other imports, seating was very low to the floor. Styling somewhat resembled the larger Ford Maverick in grille and tail light themes, but had a smooth fastback profile. Body styles included a two-door coupé with a conventional trunk, a three-door hatchback called the Runabout, a two-door station wagon, and the Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon, produced from 1977 to 1980 and styled to resemble a small conversion van (very much the trend in the late 1970s) complete with a round "bubble window" in the side panels. There was even a top of the line Pinto Squire, which had faux wood sides like the flag ship Ford Country Squire. There were appearance packages, but never a factory performance package similar to the Cosworth Vega or the 304 V8 Gremlin X.

The car's design was conventional, with unibody construction, a longitudinally-mounted engine in front driving the rear wheels through either a manual or automatic transmission and live axle rear end. Suspension was by unequal length A-arms with coil springs at the front and the live axle rear was suspended on leaf springs. The rack and pinion steering had optional power assist, as did the brakes.

Road & Track faulted the suspension and standard drum brakes, calling the latter a "serious deficiency". But they praised the proven 1.6 L Kent engine, adapted from European Fords. The much larger 2300 found in arch-rival Chevrolet Vega was an innovative brand new design with aluminum heads that would suffer from serious reliability problems. Consumer Reports rated the 1971 Pinto below the Vega but above the Gremlin.

Original engines included a British-built 1.6 L OHV I4 and a German-built 2.0 L SOHC I4. In 1974, the 1.6 L powerplant was dropped and a new 2.3 L engine became available; a 2.8 L V6 was available from 1975.

Though the cars were thoroughly forgotten for some time, the Pinto seems to be enjoyed success as an amateur-level vintage racing car owing to its light weight, rear-wheel drive (RWD) layout, willing and durable Ford of Europe engines, and good car and parts availability.

Through early production of the model, it became a focus of a major scandal when it was alleged that the car's design allowed its fuel tank to be easily damaged in the event of a rear-end collision which sometimes resulted in deadly fires and explosions. Critics argued that the vehicle's lack of a true rear bumper as well as any reinforcing structure between the rear panel and the tank, meant that in certain collisions, the tank would be thrust forward into the differential, which had a number of protruding bolts that could puncture the tank. This, and the fact that the doors could potentially jam during an accident (due to poor reinforcing) made the car a potential deathtrap.

Ford was aware of this design flaw but allegedly refused to pay what was characterized as the minimal expense of a redesign. Instead, it was argued, Ford decided it would be cheaper to pay off possible lawsuits for resulting deaths. Mother Jones magazine obtained the cost-benefit analysis Ford had used to compare the cost of an $11 repair against the cost of paying off potential law suits, in what became known as the Ford Pinto Memo. The characterization of Ford's design decision as gross disregard for human lives in favor of profits led to major lawsuits, inconclusive criminal charges, and a costly recall of all affected Pintos. Ford lost several million dollars and gained a reputation for manufacturing "the barbecue that seats four."

The most famous Ford Pinto product liability case resulted in a judicial opinion that is a staple of remedies courses in American law schools. In Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., 119 Cal. App. 3d 757 (4th Dist. 1981) [1], the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District reviewed Ford's conduct in painstaking detail, and upheld compensatory damages of $2.5 million and punitive damages of $3.5 million against Ford. It also upheld the judge's reduction of the punitive damages from the jury's original verdict of $125 million. Of the two plaintiffs, one was killed in the collision that caused her Pinto to explode, and her passenger, 13-year old Richard Grimshaw, was badly burned and scarred for life.

More recently, a well-known 1991 law review paper by Gary Schwartz, argued that the case against the Pinto was less clear-cut than commonly supposed. Only 27 people ever died in Pinto fires. Given the Pinto's production figures (over 2 million built), this was no worse than typical for the time, and far less than the "hundreds" claimed by the consumer safety advocates whose allegations are largely responsible for the reputation of the vehicle. Schwartz argued that the car was no more fire-prone than other cars of the time, and that the supposed "smoking gun" document showing Ford's callousness actually referred to the auto industry in general rather than the Pinto specifically.

Due to the alleged engineering, safety, and reliability problems, Forbes Magazine included the Pinto on its list of the worst cars of all time. Ironically Ford had originally planned to include an inexpensive rubber bladder inside the gas tank that would have prevented most of the explosive crashes that plagued the car's run; in addition, Ford had also planned to include revolutionary dual front air bags. The addition of these two safety features would have added a few hundred dollars to the $2000 base price of the vehicle but would have probably made it a much safer vehicle. However, it is quite possible Ford would not have sold over two million of the modified car due to the substantial increase in price and may or may not have made less profit. The Pinto was once referred to as "the car nobody loved, but everybody bought."