The Ford Pinto Case


Ford Pinto Case Information - By Daniel Boyce

The year 1971 marked a new direction that defined Ford Motor Company. Little did they know that it would be in a negative way, resulting in a great amount of controversy for the future of its company. The Ford Pinto is known to be one of the most dangerous cars produced in automotive history due to several serious design flaws.

In 1968, Ford Motor Company began to make plans for a car that would be inexpensive, small, and appeal to all car buyers. Ford Motor Company’s vice president, Lee Iococca, approved plans for this new compact car, the Ford Pinto, based on the company’s recent success. One of Ford’s plans for the project was the 2000/2000 rule. The Pinto could weigh no more than 2000 pounds, and it could cost no more than 2000 dollars.[i] The Product Planning Committee instituted this rule because of the extreme competition between all of the automotive companies at the time. Ford believed that if they could get a first time car buyer to purchase a Ford, they would be more likely to purchase a Ford over any other brand for their future car purchases. However, the 2000/2000 rule left designers with limited ability to design a car the way it should be designed. In fact, the Pinto was brought into production faster than any other car had ever been produced. It took twenty five months from the inception of the idea of the Pinto to the production of the Pinto. The industry average time to make a new car at the time was forty three months.[ii] They had to cut corners, and were rushed while building the Pinto, which later revealed many mistakes that were overlooked. The first model year for the Pinto was in 1971.

In the first years of production, the National Highway Travel Safety Administration, (NHTSA), began to make new safety regulations for cars. All of the new regulations involved “post crash survivability.” Prior to the development of the Pinto, the NHTSA regulations only involved fuel system integrity for front end collisions. Days after the Pinto was released, the NHTSA came out with more strict regulations for post crash survivability. They strengthened requirements for a front end collision, but they also added requirements for rear end collisions, lateral collisions, and rollovers.[iii] The Pinto 1973 model only met the NHTSA requirement for 1969, but Ford was not doing anything illegal because they had already began producing the Pinto before the new safety standards came out. In 1977, NHTSA required all cars going forward had to comply with their requirements. Ford held off on modifications for the NHTSA standards in the 1975 and 1976 Pinto’s due to the extra money they would have to spend to fulfill the requirements. [iv]

The Pinto is not a famous car because of its attractive style, great handling, or huge power, in fact, it had none of these qualities. The Pinto was a cheap, bottom of the line car that was meant to get you from point A to point B. The Pinto is a famous car because of the horrible problems it had, and the many deaths that it caused. The Pinto’s problems originated with the placement of the gas tank. At that time of automobile production, it was customary to place the gas tank between the rear axle and the bumper, which would give the vehicle more trunk space. The only other place the gas tank would be mounted was above the rear axle, but that eliminated trunk space, and the developers of the Pinto wanted the most practical car they could produce. The gas tank was nine inches away from the rear axle. This might not seem like a big deal, but there were other parts of the Pinto that cause this to be deadly. On the rear axles transfer case, which takes the rotation of the drive shaft and converts it to power to the rear wheels, were bolts that stuck out facing the rear bumper of the vehicle. When the Pinto was rear ended, the gas tank would be forced up to the rear axle, and the transfer case bolts would puncture the gas tank. The fuel filler pipe was also poorly designed and could easily become detached in a rear end collision, causing gasoline to spill over the ground, which was the cause of the numerous large fires responsible for killing people. The gas tank also had a tendency to explode.[v] Another small design flaw was the rear bumper attached to the Pinto. Usually bumpers are connected to the car chassis or something with strength and they can provide a small degree of protection. The Pinto’s bumper was only ornamental and provided absolutely no protection. In a rear end collision, the Pinto would crumple completely, allowing the car rear ending the Pinto to reach the rear axle, crushing the gas tank into the axle and everything in between. Explosion of the gas tank usually occurred at any collision at or above thirty one miles per hour. The doors on the Pinto had a tendency to get jammed shut when rear ended at high speeds, causing the victims to often burn alive if they were not already killed on impact. Ford met NHTSA safety regulations in the 1977 Pinto by installing a plastic shield or baffle in front of the fuel tank to prevent the transfer case bolts from puncturing the tank in the incident of an accident.[vi] The magazine, Mother Jones, was the first to expose the issue to the public and the author of the article was later given the Pulitzer Prize.[vii]

Due to the seriousness of the defects on the Pinto, and the numerous deaths involved with the car, there were many law suits against Ford Motor Company. Ford should have expected this because prior to releasing the Pinto, Ford crash tested eleven cars. Eight out of the eleven vehicles suffered potentially catastrophic gas tank ruptures. The only three that did not have gas tank ruptures had been modified before the test to protect the tank.[viii] One of the first law suits that came from a Pinto death was Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Company. This case happened during August of 1977, in Orange County, Florida. An elderly woman, Lily Gray, was driving her 1972 Ford Pinto Hatchback in May of 1972, with her thirteen year old neighbor, Richard Grimshaw. While driving, Lily’s car had a problem with the carburetor and her car stalled in the middle of the road. Another vehicle rear ended Lily’s Pinto at about thirty miles per hour. Lily died upon the impact and Richard was seriously burned. Upon the completion of the trial in 1978, the jury awarded $560,000 to the Gray family and the Grimshaws received $2.5 million in compensation. Ford Motor Company was also fined $125 million in punitive damages, but it was later reduced to $3.5 million.[ix] There was another instance of death that is somewhat famously associated with the Pinto. On August 10, 1978 on Highway 33, three teenage girls stopped to get gas and they loosely screwed the gas cap back into the gas filler tube. While driving along the highway, the gas cap fell off and the girls pulled off as far right on the road as they could get. They were partly on the shoulder, and partly on the highway while trying to retrieve the gas cap. While sitting on the shoulder, a van weighing over 4,000 pounds, with a modified rigid front bumper struck the Pinto at about fifty miles per hour. The two passengers died as the Pinto burst into flames and the driver was ejected from the car and died later in the hospital. The police found open beer bottles, marijuana, and caffeine pills inside the van. While this case was brought to court, the court found that there were three parties that could be blamed in the situation. The first person to blame is the driver of the van because he was driving dangerously with controlled subjects in his vehicle. The second party to blame is the Indiana Highway department because there was no safe place to stop for emergencies. There had already been petitions to make the road safer. The third party that could be blamed is the three girls in the Pinto because they were negligent for stopping in the middle of the highway.[x] It would be foolish for the girls to be blamed because they were the ones who ultimately lost their lives because of someone else. According to “Pinto Madness,” the article from Mother Jones Magazine, five hundred to nine hundred people were killed in Pinto related accidents.

One might wonder how Ford Motor Company did not spiral to the ground and cease to exist after so many deaths were caused by their faulty product. Ford used a calculation called a Cost/Benefit analysis to justify their actions in not recalling all of the Pinto’s from 1971 to 1976. This Cost/Benefit analysis weighed both the cost and the benefit to society and to Ford Motor Company if they were to recall every car that was defective. If the numbers turned out in Ford’s favor, that is, if the cost outweighed the societal benefit, they were justified in not recalling the Pinto’s because they would be spending more money than what would affect society. At the time, NHTSA valued a human life to be worth about $200,000 based on the following terms:

Future productivity losses = Direct: $132,000 and Indirect: $41,300,
Medical Costs = Hospital: $700 and Other: $425,
Property Damage = $1,500,
Insurance Administration = $4,700,
Legal and Court Fees = $3,000,
Employer Losses = $1,000,
Victim’s pain and suffering = $10,000,
Funeral = $900,
Assets = $5,000,
Miscellaneous = $200.

The total value of human life per fatality was $200,725. Rounding the number down, Ford came up with a Cost/Benefit analysis. The benefits accounted for 180 burn deaths prevented, 180 serious burn injuries prevented, and 2,100 burned vehicles prevented. If those numbers are multiplied for $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury, and $700 per vehicle, the final benefit, or amount of money Ford would have to pay if they did not recall any of their vehicles, to society was $49.5 million. Following is the Cost analysis for the recall of Fords Vehicles: 11 million cars, 1.5 million light trucks. For recall it would cost $11 per car, and $11 per truck. After the math was done, Ford would end up spending $137 million on recalls.[xi] As stated earlier, Ford was justified by not recalling their affected vehicles because the amount of money they would have to spend on recalls far outweighed the amount of money they would spend on compensation to customers for death, injury, or harmed cars. Although this may have saved Ford Motor Company a great amount of money, they also lost their good reputation as well as many consumer fans because of their choice not to recall the cars. Ford originally gave four reasons why they did not want to recall the Pinto. 1) Ford had based an earlier advertising campaign around safety, which failed. 2) The bad publicity involved with a recall would be too much negative publicity to overcome. 3) At the time of the product designs and crash tests, the law did not require them to redesign the fuel system. 4) It was customary in the automotive industry to place the gas tank between the rear axle and bumper.[xii] Ford eventually agreed to recall the Pinto on June 10, 1978. They sent out the recall notices on August 22, 1978.

Although Ford Motor Company failed greatly with the design of the Pinto in the 1970s, they made a comeback and eventually built up a good name for themselves. Today, they are one of the most successful American automotive producers.

[i] John R. Danley, “Polishing up the Pinto: Legal Liability, Moral Blame, and Risk,” Business Ethics Quarterly, 207 (Apr., 2005)[Database On-Line]; available from JStor, Philosophy Documentation Center, 27 March 2012.

[ii] Dennis A. Gioia, “Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics: A Script Analysis of Missed Oportunities,” Journal of Business Ethics, 38 (May, 1992) [database on-line]; available from JStor, Springer; 27 March 2012.

[iii] Ibid.,207.

[iv] Ibid.,208.

[v] Christopher Leggett, The Ford Pinto Case: The Valuation of Life asit Applies to the Negligence-Efficiency Argument (Wake Forest, NC: 1999) [internet on-line]; available from; 27 March 2012.

[vi] John R. Danley, Polishing up the Pinto,208.

[vii] Christopher Leggett, The Ford Pinto Case.

[viii] Dennis A. Gioia, Pinto Fires and Personal Ethics, 381

[ix] John R. Danley, Polishing up the Pinto,208.

[x] Christopher Leggett, The Ford Pinto Case.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.