Famous for Catching Fire: Ford Pinto

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Despite being the right car for the times, the Ford Pinto was plagued by the fear that its owners could suffer serious burns due to a major design fault.

It is often difficult to look at subcompacts from the Seventies as even remotely desirable. But surprising as it might be, there was enough about the Pinto that was done right that it was a huge sales hit for Ford. But we don't remember that today. All we remember is that the Pinto was prone to explode in a giant fire when hit from behind. This is the purpose of this series: cars which, right or wrong, we think of as fire hazards. And the Ford Pinto was chief among these spontaneously combusting automobiles.

The idea for the Pinto came about in the late sixties. After about a decade of steadily losing sales to imports, American car companies finally realized that subcompacts weren't going away, and that they would need to bring out something competitive. Ford would start out by bringing the Cortina over from Europe as a stopgap, and would begin work on the Pinto in 1968. The Pinto would call on Ford of Europe's powertrain expertise, using an engine out of the European Escort, but would be designed with styling more closely rivaling the Japanese cars of the day. The project was set in motion by Lee Iacocca, fresh off of the success of the Ford Mustang.

The Pinto would use a sort of scaled-down variation on the Mustang's styling, and the name is obviously meant to capitalize on the pony-car craze. The car would debut in 1971, six months after the competing AMC Gremlin and exactly one day after the Chevy Vega. The Pinto was popular right from the start, but the energy crisis would rear its ugly head shortly after the car's debut, and then sales would really pick up. In 1974 alone, Ford sold 544,209 units of the Pinto. This was followed up by the decision to sell a Mercury-badged version, known as the Bobcat (capitalizing on the success of the Cougar), in 1975.

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Ford had sold 2.3 million units by 1976, and would sell more than 3 million in total by the time the car was discontinued in 1980. You'll probably notice that those numbers suggest a slowing down of sales after 1976, and you're right, but we'll come to that in a bit. Two engines were offered at first, both of them with four cylinders. There was a 1.6-liter unit producing 75 horsepower and a 2.0 with 100 horsepower. Neither of those are particularly high numbers, but the Pinto only weighed about 2,000 lbs, so it was really enough. A V6 was offered for 1976 through 1979 that wasn't much more powerful than the 2.0, but it did offer up noticeably more torque.

Contemporary automotive publications at the time of the Pinto's debut had certain criticisms, but overall found it to be a decent enough car for the price. The Pinto's problems began in 1974, when the NHTSA began investigating problems with the generally shoddy nature of the Pinto's fuel tank design. This didn't really go anywhere at first, but would pick up considerable momentum later. The problem was the fuel tank's location, situated behind the rear axle and in front of the rear bumper. In that position, the filler neck had a tendency to tear away from the tank in a rear-end collision.

The tank was also punctured by bolts protruding from the differential, and it was estimated that a full tank would be emptied of fuel after an accident in as little as a minute. The risk of fire was obvious, but Ford hadn't realized this until just before the car debuted. The formula which Ford applied to decide whether to fix the problem was the one famously mocked in "Fight Club". They weighed the cost of fixing the problem against what it would cost to pay off anyone injured or killed as a result, and when the second number ended up being lower, Ford decided not to fix the problem.

Ford got away with this for some time, until Mother Jones got ahold of the memo detailing the formula in 1977 and published it. The NHTSA would step up its investigation as a result, and later that year, a judge in Orange County, California, would award Richard Grimshaw $125 million for burns suffered when his Pinto was rear-ended. The number was later adjusted to $3.4 million, but the original number, which exceeded Ford's total profits for the Pinto, was intended to make a point. Ford would fix the problem for the next couple of years the car was in production, and would recall and repair all Pintos sold prior to this.

The total number of fatalities from rear-end collisions before the fix is said to be between 27 and 180, with all of the media hype making it difficult to get accurate figures. But even the worst case, 180 deaths from the more than 2.3 million vehicles which had been sold up to that point, is only about the same percentage as rear-end collision deaths in any other subcompact at the time. Safety standards at the time were not even close to what they are today, and what Ford did with the Pinto wasn't likely to be any different to what was happening at every car company in the day.

But it was Ford that got caught, thanks to its paper trail, and the resulting PR nightmare cost them even bigger in terms of lost sales than the initial fix would have set them back. It would take Ford some time to regain its credibility in the public eye, and the Pinto went down in history as a car which time may have forgotten, but flames never did.

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