Defective Pinto almost took Ford's reputation with it
By ROBERT SHEREFKIN | Automotive News
Remember the Pinto? It was one of the industry's hottest-selling subcompacts during the 1970s. Its success enhanced the reputation of Lee Iacocca - until an estimated 500 deaths and hundreds of injuries were linked to a faulty design that made the gasoline tank vulnerable to explosion after rear-end collisions.
On June 9, 1978, Ford agreed to recall 1.5 million Ford Pinto and 30,000 Mercury Bobcat sedan and hatchback models. Iacocca was fired the following month.
It was too late to save Ford's reputation. Ford customers filed 117 lawsuits, according to Peter Wyden in The Unknown Iacocca. A 1979 landmark case, Indiana vs. Ford Motor Co., made the automaker the first U.S. corporation indicted and prosecuted on criminal homicide charges.
The Pinto case did more than enrich an army of lawyers. It also sparked the growth of an ingeniously organized litigation industry that moves quickly when big companies such as Ford stumble into product-liability trouble.
Worried about imports
Foreign competition had begun to rattle the Big 3 by the late 1960s. The Volkswagen Beetle was still formidable, and the VW Rabbit was on the drawing board. Datsun and Toyota were readying new models. Honda was preparing to change the nature of the competition with its Civic.
Car and Driver magazine warned that by ignoring the foreign assault, the Big 3 were setting themselves up for an American industrial Waterloo.
Imports gained a sizable chunk of sales nationwide and even more in California. General Motors was readying its own import fighter, the Chevrolet Vega.
Ford's entry was delayed by internal debate. Ford President Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen argued that Ford should stick to where the profits were: large and medium-sized vehicles. Iacocca, then executive vice president of Ford North American Automotive Operations, countered that the imports would capture the American subcompact market unless Ford built a contender. Knudsen lost. Iacocca ordered a rush program to build the Pinto. In 1970, Iacocca became president of Ford.
The Pinto quickly became known as "Lee's car." He demanded that it weigh no more than 2,000 pounds and sell for $2,000.
The fundamental problem with the Pinto, according to Robert Lacey, author of Ford: The Men and the Machine, was that Iacocca only once before had worked on a new car that was really new. Worse, Lacey contends, Iacocca had a don't-bother-me-with-trifles haughtiness toward technicians.
Iacocca was in a hurry. He wanted the car in showrooms for the 1971 model year. That meant one of the shortest production planning periods in modern automotive history: just 25 months, when the normal time span was 43 months.
That also meant that the Pinto's tooling was developed at the same time as product development. So, it was later alleged, when Ford engineers found a serious defect in the gasoline tank, it was too late. The tooling process was well under way.
The Pinto and its Mercury counterpart, the Bobcat, went on to become a top-selling subcompact in America in the early 1970s. Iacocca, widely seen as the father of the Mustang, again was lauded.
GM's Vega had its share of problems, but the Pinto's performance in rear-end collisions led to shocking headlines across the nation. Exploding gas tanks, lawsuits and bad publicity blunted what could have been an enormous success. People liked the car. Ford sold 328,275 in the United States in 1971, its first year.
Pinto crashes caused the death and mutilation of 900 occupants after their cars burst into flames after rear-end collisions, according to Wyden in The Unknown Iacocca.
Mother Jones, a left-wing magazine that specialized in investigative journalism, reported in its September/October 1977 issue that Ford knew - and did nothing about - pre-production crash tests that showed that rear-end collisions easily ruptured the Pinto's fuel system. General-circulation newspapers - in which auto coverage generally is limited to gushing reports about horsepower and styling - eventually were forced to take notice.
Ford allegedly knew that there was a flaw in the tube leading to the gasoline-tank cap of pre-1976 Pintos. A rear-end collision would rip the tube away from the tank and gasoline would pour onto the road.
The gasoline tank itself would buckle after being jammed up against the differential housing, which contained four sharp, protruding bolts, according to Mother Jones. A spark from a cigarette, ignition or scraping metal would do the rest.
But because assembly-line machinery already was tooled when engineers found the defect, the magazine said, top Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway - exploding gasoline tank and all - even though Ford owned the patent on a much safer gasoline tank. Iacocca's $2,000 limit on the car's costs left no money to protect the fuel system, not even a $1 piece of plastic that would have protected the gasoline tank from being punctured, Mother Jones asserted.
The low point for Ford came in 1979 when Indiana authorities charged the automaker with reckless homicide in a criminal trial. The case stemmed from a crash in 1978 in which three girls in a Pinto had burned to death after the vehicle was rammed from behind.
Until then, criminal charges in product-liability cases were rare. Even though documents alleged that Ford executives knew of the potential danger, only one prosecutor, in Elkhart County in Indiana, tried to hold Ford or any of its executives criminally liable.
The three-month long trial was riveting. The attorney prosecuting Ford in the 1980 trial "waved in front of the jury the death certificates of the three girls," according to an account by Automotive News.
"You can send a message," prosecuting attorney Michael Cosentino told the jury. "You can send a message that can be heard in the Bloomfield Hills of America and in the large boardrooms."
The jury deliberated 25 hours before finding Ford not guilty of three counts of reckless homicide in March 1980. The threshold for showing willful misbehavior was too high at that time. But the damage to Ford's reputation was considerable.
U.S. sales of the Pinto had peaked in 1973 at 479,668. The following year, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall Pintos.
By the time Indiana authorities indicted the automaker in 1979, U.S. sales had declined to 187,708.
Ford ceased Pinto production in July 1980, building just 68,179 Pintos that year.
Many civil suits
Civil actions were numerous, expensive and embarrassing. A California jury awarded an unprecedented $128 million for a claim against the company as a result of an accident in which a woman was killed and her 13-year-old passenger was burned over 90 percent of his body when her Pinto stalled on a Los Angeles freeway. A car traveling 35 mph struck them from behind, causing the Pinto to burst into flames.
What caught the public's eye in the Pinto cases was the disclosure that Ford found it cheaper to pay off the families of the victims of Pinto fires than the $137 million it would cost to fix the Pinto immediately, according to an internal Ford memo introduced during a civil trial. That meant it was not cost-effective to do the repairs.
There is no way of knowing how much Ford paid in Pinto suits because some were settled quietly out of court.
Product-liability suits, in effect, are attempts to regulate corporate behavior. When lawyers contend that tires blow out too easily or that SUVs roll over with unacceptable ease, they are in effect asking courts to set safety standards tougher than those set by state and federal regulatory agencies.
So a comment by the foreman in the California civil case - in which most of the $128 million award was in punitive damages - must have been chilling to Ford Chairman Henry Ford II, who vigorously fought federal automotive safety regulations during the 1960s and 1970s. The punitive damages were so large, the foreman said, "so that Ford wouldn't design cars that way again."
-Rushed into production
-Fuel systems ruptured in collisions, led to fires
-Criminal, civil lawsuits
Ford Motor Co. cannot afford another Pinto. Neither can the auto industry.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....