Flashback Friday: The Life and Death of the Ford Pinto

By Admin | Posted in Flashback Friday on Friday, August 15th, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Flashback Friday: Ford Pinto

Although it has been more than 30 years since the last model rolled off the production line, the Ford Pinto continues to receive a great deal of flak. It’s essentially impossible to scroll through any list of the World’s Worst Cars without seeing mention of the Pinto, but we don’t really understand why.

We’ll be the first to admit that the Pinto had some problems. It ran into some legal troubles after it was determined that a design fault was causing certain models to leak gas and combust in rear-end collisions, but many of the subcompact’s issues were blown out of proportion by the media, and years after the Pinto was laid to rest in 1980, studies determined that the subcompact car was as safe, or safer than, the other vehicles in its class.

So why then does the Pinto get thrown under the bus so often, and so carelessly? That’s what we’ve set out to answer in this week’s edition of Flashback Friday.

The Origins of the Ford Pinto

About five decades ago, foreign automakers began to bring their compact-sized economy cars stateside, and to combat the rising sales numbers of the small and efficient vehicles, Lee Iacocca, President of the Ford Motor Company at the time, sensed an opportunity. He put the team to work to design a vehicle that weighed less than 2,000 pounds and that would boast a sticker price below $2,000.

22 short months later, the first model of the Ford Pinto—named after piebald-patterned horses—was born. It came in about 50 pounds below the requested weight and had entry-level pricing of roughly $1,900, which was just what the doctor ordered. Happy with the product, Iacocca unveiled the newest addition to the lineup and let it run free. The Pinto went on sale on September 11, 1970, and not surprisingly, it hit the road running.


As you can see from the initial commercial for the Pinto that we have provided, the subcompact was released under the tagline The Little Carefree Car. The commercial also reiterates the fact that the Pinto was Iacocca’s way of taking down the increasingly popular foreign compacts that were flooding the market. As the ad says, “It’s frisky. With a wider stance than any little import.” That wide stance, as well as the 25 mpg fuel economy and spacious interior, were just a few of the major selling points, but it didn’t take long before the Pinto was selling itself.

By January of 1971, just five months after the Pinto was released, over 100,000 units had been sold. It seemed that the Ford Motor Company had struck gold. Little did Iacocca know, however, his answer to the problem of the compact imports would soon become a problem of its own.

Controversy and Criticism

ford-pinto-fireThe Ford Pinto continued to be produced without a hitch until 1972, when a rear-end collision caused one of the subcompacts to burst into flames. The accident took the life of a woman named Lily Gray, and left Richard Grimshaw, a passenger in Gray’s car, severely burned. The whole ordeal set Ford back about 6.5 million dollars, but the settlement money was nothing compared to the hit that the automaker took in sales.

It was found that the issue with the Pinto surrounded the fuel tank, which sat only nine inches back from the rear axle. In rear end collisions, the fuel tank would be forced forward where it would come in contact with a set of bolts that were mounted to the axle. Those bolts would rupture the tank and cause the highly flammable fuel to pour out. Needless to say, the design flaw made the Pinto quite dangerous.

In 1974, after ruptured fuel tanks caused more Ford Pinto models to catch fire, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requested that the automaker recall the Pinto. However, at that time, the death toll of Ford Pinto fires was at 27, a small percentage of the growing number of Pinto models on the road. So, after determining that the Pinto had no recallable problem, the safety agency withdrew their request.

A short while later, in response to the deaths caused by the Pinto, Ford took matters into their own hands. The automaker issued a recall and provided all Ford Pinto models with a plastic shield that served as a barrier between the fuel tank and the protruding axle bolts. They also had dealers install longer fuel-tank filler necks that extended further into the tank and were less prone to breaking off in the event of rear-end collisions.

The Death of the Ford Pinto

ford-pinto-advertisement-flashback-fridayDespite Ford’s efforts to fix the problems that existed with the Pinto, media outlets continued to bash the innocent little car, and they often did so wrongly. Back in the late ‘70s, it was reported that the Pinto fires claimed hundreds of lives, when in actuality, the aforementioned death toll of 27 was as high as it got. So, considering the fact that more than three million Pinto models were sold in its short ten-year run, the amount of lives lost from the Pinto isn’t much higher than the amount lost from many of the foreign import cars that the Pinto was competing with.

A number of years later, it was also determined that the placement of the fuel tank in the Pinto, which was often cited as the biggest flaw of the Pinto, was no different that the majority of American cars produced during the time. In fact, Gary T. Schwartz, who debunked many myths about the Pinto in a paper released in 1991, said that the location of the fuel tank was “commonplace.”

Despite a complete redesign for the 1979 model year, Ford could not overcome the controversy with the Pinto. Sales numbers, which peaked in 1974, continued to fall year after year. There was a slight boost in sales during 1976, but it was all downhill from there. The numbers hit an all-time low in 1980 and the automaker was forced to accept defeat and douse the metaphorical flame of the Ford Pinto for good.


The Award-Winning Ford Pinto

As we said, the Ford Pinto has received a lot of negative publicity over the last couple of years. With all of the problems that it has encountered, you can pretty much rest assured that you will find it on every car-bashing list that exists. Here are a few of the most notable negative mentions of the Pinto over the last decade.


Forbes Magazine

After more than 20 years since production ended, consumers were reminded of the Pinto when it appeared on the 2004 Forbes list of the Worst Cars of All Time.


Time Magazine

Not long after the Forbes recognition, the Pinto was included on Dan Neil’s 2008 list of the Fifty Worst Cars of All Time. Neil cited engineering and safety as the reasons.


Business Week

It was in 2009 that the Pinto received its latest recognition by a prestigious magazine. The subcompact made it on the list of the Ugliest Cars of the Past 50 Years.


Be sure to check back here on the Matt Ford blog next Friday for our third installment of Flashback Friday. The Ford Motor Company has been in existence for 101 years, and to show you how some of the models have progressed over time, every Friday we’ll be spending time going over the best and worst Ford models and features. You won’t be seeing anything on any models from the past five years, but anything before that will be fair game.

Next week we will be taking a look at the Ford F-Series, which is arguably one of the biggest successes of the automaker. The best-selling truck in America has gone through a number of changes over the years, and we’re going to look at the origins of the F-Series and how it has evolved into the model that we see today. While you wait for next Friday to roll around, be sure to flashback to last Friday’s edition where we took a closer look at the origins of the original pony car: the 1964 Ford Mustang.


6 Responses to “Flashback Friday: The Life and Death of the Ford Pinto”

  1. Peter says:

    Why is the yellow car shown on fire a Chevy Vega?

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