The Ford Pinto is an iconic subcompact of the 1970s – but for all the wrong reasons. Introduced in 1971 after a mere 25 months of development (usually about 45 months were needed), it was intended as a competitor to European imports such as the VW Beetle. Built in three factories – New Jersey, Ontario, and California – it was marketed as Mercury Bobcat with slightly different styles.
A promising little car
The 1971 version came in two variants: a sedan and a hatchback with the jolly name “Runabout”. But in fact the car advertised as “the Little Carefree Car” would prove both popular in terms of sales (during the first three years) AND very problematic for Ford.
The Ford Pinto as a subcompact revealed a change in customer expectations (smaller cars started to be in demand after 1973), and Pinto would become a household name for dramatic reasons. Several rear‑end collisions resulted in fatalities caused by Ford’s engineering choices and made worse by the manufacturer’s financial decisions, lawsuits and of course public outcry.
In its 1971 version the inline-4, 1.6l engine offered 75hp. In the later versions (as Pinto were sold until 1980), the engine would be upgraded as high as a 2.8l V6 with as much as 102hp. Nonetheless, a lot of the technical specifications of the Pinto are made irrelevant by its major design and safety flaws.
While in development, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) was starting to implement safety standards covering rear-end collisions at 20mph. The Pinto had its fuel tank between the rear axle and the rear bumper, a standard practice at the time, so indeed the rear bumper and a lack of structural reinforcement were a vulnerability.
By the end of 1973, the design flaw of the fuel tank had already caused at least three deaths and four serious injuries in rear-end collisions at low speeds. In 1974 Ford’s Engineering Department produced the infamous “Pinto Memo”, which was leaked and presented the financial cost of a recall and design change vs the cost of accident lawsuits purely as a financial matter.
Two lawsuits among the 117 that were filed are remembered vividly. One was the Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Co., where the driver Lily Grey was killed and the passenger, Richard Grimshaw (aged 13) suffered permanent full body burns, lost his left ear and fingers. In the other case, State of Indiana vs. Ford Motor Company, three teenage girls were killed in the rear end collision.
When it became known that Ford could have made the car safer for a ridiculous $15.30 per car, and saved these lives (and possibly many more), the juries decided to punish the company with $120 million for corporate greed and profit maximization at the expense of safety.
From 1974 till 1978, as a result of the news coverage and the leakage of the Pinto Memo, the car received considerable negative publicity. Back in the 1970s leaks and buzz did not need social media or the internet to spread the news, and so the Pinto had earned itself a dreadful name. #firetrap
Finally in 1978, during the Grimshaw lawsuit, the Ford Pinto was submitted by the NHTSA to a (somewhat biased) rear-end collision test and Ford preferred to recall 1.5 million cars voluntarily for upgrades rather than face the public humiliation of a forced recall.
No country for old men
The Pinto never reached the sales forecasts of 11 million units. It was indeed successful as far as sales were concerned, but only in the first half of the 1970s. Out of the 3 million units sold from 1970 till 1980, half were sold between 1972 and 1974 (500,000 units per year during that period).
Ford’s pricing strategy worked. The Pinto was indeed a decent small car for USD 2,000 or so, but it was not an easy ride for Ford. After 1974, the low price was no match for the car’s bad reputation and sales slumped. In fact, in retrospect the Ford Pinto never made it as one of the top classic cars. Instead, it proved that there was a need for smaller, higher quality, safer cars in the US.
If you are looking for specific examples to show how American manufacturers were challenged in the 1970s and 1980s by Japanese brands, look no further. The Japanese implemented more modern manufacturing processes (like Toyota’s) and soon became synonyms of excellence.