My Somewhat Begrudging Apology To Ford Pinto

Steve Finlay 2

March 26, 2010

5 Min Read
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I never thought I’d offer an apology to the Ford Pinto, but I guess I owe it one.

I had a Pinto in the 1970s. Actually, my wife bought it a few months before we got married. The car became sort of a wedding dowry. So did the remaining 80% of the outstanding auto loan.

During a relatively brief ownership, the Pinto’s repair costs exceeded the original price of the car. It wasn’t a question of if it would fail, but when. And where. Sometimes, it simply wouldn’t start in the driveway. Other times, it would conk out at a busy intersection.

It ranks as the worst car I ever had. That was back when some auto makers made quality something like Job 100, certainly not Job 1.

Despite my bad Pinto experience, I suppose an apology is in order because of a recent blog I wrote. It centered on Toyota’s sudden-acceleration problems. But in discussing those, I invoked the memory of exploding Pintos, perpetuating an inaccuracy.

The widespread allegation was that, due to a design flaw, Pinto fuel tanks could readily blow up in rear-end collisions, setting the car and its occupants afire.

People started calling the Pinto “the barbecue that seats four.” And the lawsuits spread like wild fire.

Responding to my blog, a Ford (“I would very much prefer to keep my name out of print”) manager contacted me to set the record straight.

He says exploding Pintos were a myth that an investigation debunked nearly 20 years ago. He cites Gary Schwartz’ 1991 Rutgers Law Review paper that cut through the wild claims and examined what really happened.

Schwartz methodically determined the actual number of Pinto rear-end explosion deaths was not in the thousands, as commonly thought, but 27.

In 1975-76, the Pinto averaged 310 fatalities a year. But the similar-size Toyota Corolla averaged 313, the VW Beetle 374 and the Datsun 1200/210 came in at 405.

Yes, there were cases such as a Pinto exploding while parked on the shoulder of the road and hit from behind by a speeding pickup truck. But fiery rear-end collisions comprised only 0.6% of all fatalities back then, and the Pinto had a lower death rate in that category than the average compact or subcompact, Schwartz said after crunching the numbers. Nor was there anything about the Pinto’s rear-end design that made it particularly unsafe.

Not content to portray the Pinto as an incendiary device, ABC’s 20/20 decided to really heat things up in a 1978 broadcast containing “startling new developments.” ABC breathlessly reported that, not just Pintos, but fullsize Fords could blow up if hit from behind.

20/20 thereupon aired a video, shot by UCLA researchers, showing a Ford sedan getting rear-ended and bursting into flames. A couple of problems with that video:

One, it was shot 10 years earlier.

Two, the UCLA researchers had openly said in a published report that they intentionally rigged the vehicle with an explosive.

That’s because the test was to determine how a crash fire affected the car’s interior, not to show how easily Fords became fire balls. They said they had to use an accelerant because crash blazes on their own are so rare. They had tried to induce a vehicle fire in a crash without using an igniter, but failed.

ABC failed to mention any of that when correspondent Sylvia Chase reported on “Ford’s secret rear-end crash tests.”

We could forgive ABC for that botched reporting job. After all, it was 32 years ago. But a few weeks ago, ABC, in another one of its rigged auto exposes, showed video of a Toyota apparently accelerating on its own.

Turns out, the “runaway” vehicle had help from an associate professor. He built a gizmo with an on-off switch to provide acceleration on demand. Well, at least ABC didn’t show the Toyota slamming into a wall and bursting into flames.

In my blog, I also mentioned that Ford’s woes got worse in the 1970s with the supposed uncovering of an internal memo by a Ford attorney who allegedly calculated it would cost less to pay off wrongful-death suits than to redesign the Pinto.

It became known as the “Ford Pinto memo,” a smoking gun. But Schwartz looked into that, too. He reported the memo did not pertain to Pintos or any Ford products. Instead, it had to do with American vehicles in general.

It dealt with rollovers, not rear-end crashes. It did not address tort liability at all, let alone advocate it as a cheaper alternative to a redesign. It put a value to human life because federal regulators themselves did so.

The memo was meant for regulators’ eyes only. But it was off to the races after Mother Jones magazine got a hold of a copy and reported what wasn’t the case.

The exploding-Pinto myth lives on, largely because more Americans watch 20/20 than read the Rutgers Law Review. One wonders what people will recollect in 2040 about Toyota’s sudden accelerations, which more and more look like driver error and, in some cases, driver shams.

So I guess I owe the Pinto an apology. But it's half-hearted, because my Pinto gave me much grief, even though, as the Ford manager notes, “it was a cheap car, built long ago and lots of things have changed, almost all for the better.”

Here goes: If I said anything that offended you, Pinto, I’m sorry. And thanks for not blowing up on me.

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