Even as small as it was, the tiny Ford Pinto will perhaps always be remembered as one of the biggest examples of corporate negligence in automotive history – a car whose significance as a machine is utterly dwarfed by its reputation as a murderous death trap.
It’s a shame, really; apart from its penchant for exploding after a rear impact, the Ford Pinto did a lot of things right. It was brought out in late 1970 as a ’71 model, and made to compete in the subcompact space with imports from Europe and Japan. This it did well, weighing very little, costing less than $2,000, and making do (initially) with only a light, fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine.
The Ford Pinto’s entire 1971 production run exceeded 350,000 units.
And then, as website Classic Cars for Sale reports, a crucial incident occurred in 1972 when a Ford Pinto stalled in traffic in the US. That alone shouldn’t be a recipe for death or loss of limb, but the car was then struck from behind by another motorist traveling about 28 mph. However, due to an unfortunate confluence of factors, the Ford Pinto then exploded into flames, killing the driver (Lily Gray) and permanently disfiguring her 13 year-old passenger (Richard Grimshaw).
Accidents similar to this one later occurred in high numbers, killing as many as 70 people per year on average. The lawsuit resulting from Grimshaw’s disfigurement managed to reveal information that this was a known problem with the Ford Pinto; during rear-end collision-testing, the automaker had observed that eight out of a total of eleven cars exploded in much the same way. The three that did not explode had additional safety devices installed.
What caused the explosions? According to Classic Cars for Sale, the fuel tank’s position between the rear bumper and rear axle meant that a rear impact could sever the fuel filler neck from the tank and spray the underside of the vehicle with gasoline. If that wasn’t enough, bolts protruding from the differential housing could also puncture the gas tank and create sparks, almost ensuring that the impacted Pinto would go up in flames.
The issues were known and simple enough to fix, but would have cost Ford Motor Company some $137 million. Ford simply decided that paying out settlements was less expensive, as they were estimated to cost the company just $49.5 million.
Eventually, Ford issued a recall, installing protective plastic shields over the differential bolts, and longer, deeper fuel filler necks. Alas, the damage had already been done, and the image of the “exploding Ford Pinto” would remain to the present day. Other, bigger legal actions and recalls have taken place in the automotive sphere since, but none have had quite the cultural relevance or notoriety of the Ford Pinto.