The Pinto Fire Controversy

One of the biggest continuing automotive news stories in the latter part of the Seventies dealt with tales of exploding Ford Pintos and the considerable awards civil-court juries were presenting to victims of accidents involving the cars. Was the Pinto fire controversy a lot of hype, or had Ford truly discounted human lives in order to save a few dollars?

As early as 1972, reports of explosions in low-speed collisions involving Pintos struck from the rear started to come in to the National Highway Safety and Trans­portation Admin­istration. Accident investigations in many of the cases revealed that victims had few, if any, trauma injuries as a result of the impacts, but had burned to death when the cars exploded into flames. Some had been trapped inside the cars due to the body buckling and doors becoming jammed shut.

1973 Ford Pinto
By the 1973 model year, Ford may have already
known the Pinto was a fire hazard.

Fire safety had been a major concern at Ford since the mid Sixties. Arjay Miller, then company president, had been involved in a fiery crash while driving his new 1965 Lincoln Continental. When traffic slowed unexpectedly, he was rear-ended by another car. The fuel tank started to leak and a spark sent the rear of the luxury car up in flames.

Fortunately, the driver's door wasn't damaged and Miller was able to get out relatively unscathed. He went on a crusade for safer fuel tanks, and worked with several suppliers for systems that would contain highly flammable gasoline and give motorists a wider margin of safety. He even testified before Congress about the importance Ford Motor Company placed on the matter. What went wrong with the Pinto, then?

Records indicated that Ford had first conducted rear-end collision tests on the Pinto in December 1970, months after it was already in production. Initially, 11 carefully coordinated crashes were conducted, and in all but three of them, gas tanks ruptured and often burst into flames. In the three tests that didn't result in fires, the cars had prototype safety devices that engineers had developed while working with suppliers.

Most effective was the use of a rubber bladder/liner produced by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Despite rupturing the exterior of the tank, no fuel was spilled, and no fire resulted. It was estimated that the unit cost of bladders would have amounted to $5.08 per car.

The second method that had been employed was an extra steel plate attached to the rear of the car just behind the bumper, isolating the tank from direct contact during impact. It successfully warded off a blow at 30 mph, helping to keep the tank intact. No company cost analysis was done at the time, but experts felt that this part could have cost up to $11 per car to install.
Engineers found that the majority of the ruptures were caused by two factors: 1) the filler neck breaking off and allowing fuel to pour out, where it could be exposed to an ignition source; and 2) the tank being penetrated by contact with the differential mounting bolts and right shock absorber.

This is where a third successful fix had been devised -- a rather simple plastic insulator fitted on the differential that would keep the bolts from ever making contact with the fuel tank. Cost of this item was less than $1.

Several company memos presented as evidence during the civil trials revealed that these remedies were discussed, with the conclusion that to shut down production and retool would be too expensive. Most damaging to Ford were memos found and published by author/researcher Mark Dowie in the muckraking magazine Mother Jones that detailed a cost analysis of corporate liability in the event of having to compensate crash victims.

Experts calculated the value of a human life at around $200,000, while a serious burn injury was worth about $67,000. Using an estimate of 180 deaths and 180 serious burns, someone put on paper that the cost to redesign and rework the Pinto's gas tank would cost close to $137 million, while possible liability costs worked out to around $49 million.

Comparisons were drawn up between the Pinto and the imported Capri that was being sold by Lincoln-Mercury dealers. Both cars were of similar size and construction, but everyone agreed that the Capri's fuel tank was in a much safer location: up and away from the rear bumper, and less vulnerable in a rear-end collision.

Ford engineers argued that to place the tank any higher up in the Pinto would rob the trunk of already meager storage space, and that even a set of golf clubs would have a hard time being squeezed into the leftover space.

Ultimately, 27 people were determined to have been killed in rear-end-crash explosions involving Pintos. In one of the few cases brought to trial, a California jury awarded a boy who had been severely burned and disfigured a total of $126 million. The driver of the car had died from her injuries a few days after the accident.

When the memos regarding the liability assessments were entered into evidence, the case was as good as over. Even after a judge reduced the amount to $3.5 million on appeal, this was far more than the company had ever counted on paying. It was a real wake-up call for Ford, whose legal teams went to work to try and settle as many of the pending cases as possible out of court.

Matters were to get even more serious for the company. In 1978, Elkhart County, Indiana, Prosecutor Michael Cosen­tino called for a grand jury hearing in the case of three girls who had died in a Pinto collision fire. As a result of the grand jury findings, he filed criminal charges of negligent homicide against officials of the Ford Motor Company.

Once again, Ford's corporate legal machine went to work. It was found that the accident had occurred on a stretch of road that was notorious for being dangerous. Then, too, the driver of the speeding van that rear-ended the Pinto was in possession of alcohol and drugs, which were deemed to have contributed more to the accident than anything else.

Ultimately, the trial judge had to dismiss the criminal charges. However, this was another stern warning not only to Ford, but to all of American industry regarding its responsibility for product safety.

Finally, in September 1978, Ford issued a recall for 1.5 million 1971-76 Pinto sedans and Runabouts, plus all similar 1975-76 Mercury Bobcats, for a safety repair. Each car received a new fuel-tank filler neck that extended deeper into the tank and was more resistant to breaking off in a rear-end collision. A plastic shield was installed between the differential and the tank, as well as another to deflect contact with the right-rear shock absorber.

(While not totally immune from the hazards of rear-end collisions, station wagons -- with their 10 extra inches of rear-end sheetmetal and different configuration for the fuel filler -- were deemed far safer, and were not a part of the recall notice.)

Reflecting on the Pinto incident and Ford's attempts to control the damage at the risk of its public image, former Ford exec Lee Iacocca made this summation in his book Talking Straight: "Clamming up is what we did at Ford in the late '70s when we were bombarded with suits over the Pinto, which was involved in a lot of gas tank fires. The suits might have bankrupted the company, so we kept our mouths shut for fear of saying anything that just one jury might have construed as an admission of guilt. Winning in court was our top priority; nothing else mattered. And of course, our silence added to all the suspicions people had about us and the car."

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