The for-some-reason iconic Ford Pinto was introduced to the masses on this day in 1970. The subcompact car was developed to compete with the influx of small cars of the era, particularly imports. More than 3 million Pintos were manufactured between model years 1971 and 1980. However, it wasn’t the fact that the Pinto was the first mass produced car to feature rack-and-pinion steering that put it in the headlines. The explosive news coverage the car received throughout the 1970s can be attributed to an ill placed gas tank on pre-1977 models.
The vehicle became known for bursting into flames if it were rear ended at speeds above 20 miles per hour. It was later discovered that Ford found out about the problem during initial crash testing before production ever began and following an internal cost-benefit analysis prepared by Ford they decided to still manufacture the car without completing any fixes. The report stated that it would cost $11 per car to fix the fatal problem, which totaled $137 million. Ford compared this to an estimated $49.5 million in potential lawsuits that came about due to the fiery mistake, and the report deemed it “inefficient” to fix the problem. The report stated that Ford would likely have to pay $200,000 for each death predicted to result from the issue. After the general public learned of Ford’s decision to continue producing the Pinto there was a massive uproar. Then in 1978, a California jury awarded a record-breaking $128 million to a single claimant in a Pinto crash case. This payment was later reduced to $3.5 million.
In 1978 Ford recalled all 1971 through 1976 Pintos and provided additional shielding and reinforcement around the gas tank. Estimates put the death toll of the fatal flaw in the wide range of 27 to 180. This number is not too different from deaths in any competitors’ vehicles with similar production numbers.
Cover photo: 1973 Pinto By Joost J. Bakker from IJmuiden – Ford Pinto runaboutUploaded by Oxyman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16085390