A car on fire, engulfed in flames at nighttime.

The Worst Cars Ever Made: Part 3 – The Ford Pinto

While the “Worst Cars Ever Made” series has allowed us to take a look back at some of the most infamous and amusingly bad models in automotive history, some tales are a little heavier than others.

The Yugo certainly had its problems, but ill-advised American import aside, it largely lived up to its goal of giving Yugoslavian citizens an affordable, entry-level vehicle that increased mobility in the former Eastern European republic. The Geo Prizm—essentially just a rebadged Toyota Corolla—was more of a marketing failure than anything else, and it certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as an automotive punchline.

And then there’s the Ford Pinto.

If the two prior entries have been lemons, then the Pinto is a full-on citrus grove of corporate failure. The story of the Pinto is certainly no laughing matter, with this subcompact earning its poor reputation not for sluggish performance or slipshod marketing but for taking the lives of at least a few dozen people.

Official estimates put the Pinto’s death toll at 27, though some say the actual number could be as high as 500 to 900. So, how did one of the industry’s oldest and most accomplished brands manage to get it so wrong? How could this tragedy have been avoided, and what lessons did the industry learn from the whole Pinto debacle? We’ll dive into all that and more as we take a closer look at the little pony car that couldn’t.

Rush Hour

Much like our previous entry on the Geo Prizm, the Pinto was designed in response to the wave of small, affordable imports that began flooding the US market in the ’60s and ’70s. The Volkswagen Beetle was the first such model to make its mark on the domestic market, but the influx of cheap, reliable compacts like the Toyota Corolla and Datsun 510 exacerbated the issue and left one prominent US auto executive searching for an answer…

That executive was Lee Iacocca, who—up until the Pinto’s fiery end—was one of the most revered names in the American auto industry. Responsible for bringing the Ford Mustang, Ford Escort, Mercury Cougar, and Mercury Marquis to market, Iacocca seemingly had the golden touch and quickly rose through the ranks to become Ford’s president by 1970.

One of Iacocca’s first acts as president was to lay out plans for a small, efficient compact that could hit the vaunted 2,000/2,000 mark—that is, a car weighing less than 2,000 lbs that retailed for less than $2,000 (or around $17,000 today). Ford’s European division already offered such a car in the Ford Escort, but Iacocca resisted the easier path, tasking Ford’s engineers with creating an entirely new model with a horse-inspired name that recalled Iacocca’s greatest accomplishment, the Ford Mustang.

The Pinto became colloquially known as “Lee’s car” around the Ford watercooler, and with affordable imports quickly gobbling up market share, the project was put on the fast track—and that’s where all the trouble began.

Iacocca set an ambitious goal of introducing the Pinto for the 1971 model year, giving Ford’s engineers just 25 months to bring his vision into reality. With an industry average development timeline of 43 months, Iacocca’s 25-month plan was the shortest production schedule in automotive history. If the plan had worked, it would have cemented the executive’s reputation as a true visionary, but in the end, the project’s breakneck pace created no shortage of problems for Ford’s engineers, its boardroom, and the driving public as a whole.

In a normal production cycle for a new vehicle, engineers have plenty of time to make design tweaks and changes well before a model hits the production line tooling stage of the process. This wasn’t the case when it came to the Pinto, which meant that any changes had to be made while the production line tooling was already underway. This shift made it difficult for engineers to make last-minute adjustments, which would have been fine if the Pinto had been properly designed at the outset—but, sadly, that wasn’t the case.

A brown and white pinto horse running in an open field.

Flawed From the Start

Early on in Pinto’s production cycle, a significant problem kept rearing its ugly head. When Ford put the subcompact through its crash-test paces, the Pinto was unable to withstand a rear-end impact above 20 mph without excessive damage to the fuel tank. This problem was attributed to the fuel tank filler neck, which, in the event of a rear-end collision, was prone to breaking off and puncturing the fuel tank. This damage caused the gas tank to rupture and fuel to leak—even at lower speeds—thus throwing up a major roadblock in the model’s production cycle.

A few years prior, Ford might have been able to get away with this fatal design flaw, but incoming rules from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concerning automotive fuel system safety were set to take effect in the coming year. One could fault the government agency for moving the goalposts and changing the prior “moving-barrier rear impact test” to a “fixed-barrier impact test,” but it was Ford’s own lobbying efforts (and those of the auto industry as a whole) that had kept the new crash standard from becoming law over much of the previous decade.

When it came to the Pinto, the design team couldn’t address the issue without entirely redesigning the gas tank—but there was also the option of embracing some relatively cheap workarounds. These included a $7 nylon fuel tank bladder, $4 structural upgrades, or a $2 plastic baffle between the differential housing and fuel tank. Instead, Ford decided to press on with what they knew to be a faulty design, citing some grim math to justify the move…

The company’s thinking was guided in part by an internal report titled “Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires.” While the report was specifically focused on rollover accidents and not rear-end collisions, it goes a long way in illustrating the macabre cost-benefit analysis that saw the Pinto make it to the market for ‘71.

In the report, Ford estimated the cost of leak-preventing upgrades at around $11 per vehicle. Multiply that by the brand’s estimated annual production of 11 million cars and 1.5 million light trucks, and you get a grand total of $137.5 million. Even Ford acknowledged that failing to address this issue could lead to 180 burn-related deaths, 180 serious burn injuries, and 2,100 burned vehicles per year, but this is where the math starts to shake your faith in humanity—or at least the idea of corporate responsibility.

According to Ford’s internal estimates and data from the NHTSA, each death would cost the company around $200,000, while a burn injury and burned vehicle would total $67,000 and $700, respectively. Add those numbers up, and you have an average annual cost of $49.5 million—a figure far lower than the $137.5 million it would cost to make the necessary upgrades.

Ford went with the cheaper option, and the rest is history.

“Safety Doesn’t Sell”

While it’s easy to place blame on Iacocca, some reports suggest that Ford’s president wasn’t even aware of the Pinto’s questionable crash test record. That said, one can fault Iacocca for creating a company culture where raising these sorts of issues was taboo, with one anonymous Ford engineer suggesting that any employee dumb enough to stand in the way of “Lee’s car” would be clearing out his desk by the end of the day. “That person would have been fired,” said the engineer. “Safety wasn’t a popular subject around Ford in those days. With Lee, it was taboo.”

While the Pinto had developed an inflammatory reputation, the fuel leak-related issues weren’t even the first problems to crop up when the subcompact was introduced in 1971. Just two months after the Pinto hit the streets, Ford recalled 26,000 models thanks to a defect that saw the gas pedal stick in position when engaged more than halfway. This was followed by another 220,000-unit recall in early 1971 thanks to fuel vapors in the engine air filter being ignited by backfires. Ford’s executives probably thought things couldn’t get any worse—and that’s when the Pinto started exploding.

It took a while for the anecdotes to build into a full-on trend, but by 1977, the Pinto’s reputation had caught up with it. It was in that year that Mother Jones magazine published its groundbreaking “Pinto Madness” article, which gathered stories from dozens of drivers affected by the Pinto’s fatal flaw.

The magazine pinned between 500 and 900 deaths on the subcompact, and while some experts disagree with this figure, the article would thrust Ford into an uncomfortable spotlight as the new poster child for corporate greed. The NHTSA would launch its own investigation in 1978 and eventually recall all 1.5 million Pintos sold between 1971 and 1976, not to mention 30,000 Mercury Bobcats that posed a similar risk.

White Ford logo on blue background.

Setting a Precedent

If there’s a silver lining to the Pinto story, it comes in the form of two landmark court cases: Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Company and Indiana vs. Ford Motor Company. Commonly cited in subsequent legal filings and used to teach generations of law students, Grimshaw set an important precedent that forever changed the way auto companies do business.

Lily Gray was driving on a California freeway when her stalled Pinto was struck at 50 mph by a passing vehicle. The Pinto’s gas tank ruptured, resulting in a fire that killed Gray and caused extensive burns to her 13-year-old passenger, Richard Grimshaw. Courts awarded $127.8 million in damages (later reduced to $3.5 million), including $2.8 million to Grimshaw and $665,000 to Gray’s family. In Indiana, a similar accident saw Ford indicted on three counts of reckless homicide, though the company was eventually found not guilty.

These were just two of more than 100 cases against Ford related to the Pinto, and it led to a sea change within the industry in regard to safety. After the Pinto debacle, car companies started to place a greater emphasis on safety in the design and advertising of their vehicles. While Iacocca was famously fond of the saying “safety doesn’t sell,” that ethos went out the window as Ford worked to regain the public’s trust and patronage.

Some have suggested that the Pinto was unfairly targeted in the ensuing mania, claiming that the fuel tank issue was shared by many subcompacts of the time and that Ford was being unfairly singled out. While it’s true that General Motors did recall 320,000 ’76-’77 Chevettes for a similar fuel system issue, it’s hard to ignore the hundreds of victims and court cases that prominently featured the name “Pinto” in the court filings.

“Ford made an extremely irresponsible decision when they placed such a weak tank in such a ridiculous location in such a soft rear end,” automotive safety expert Byron Bloch told Mother Jones. The article also pointed out that there were more than 40 models with a similar design and size as the Pinto, none of which were built with such a harebrained gas tank design.

In the end, the Ford Pinto will easily go down in history as one of the worst cars ever made.

While Detroit’s Big Blue Oval has certainly learned its lesson when it comes to skirting safety standards, it’s hard to forgive the company’s wanton disregard for driver safety. Evidence presented in Pinto-related court cases leaves little doubt that the automaker knew exactly what sort of risk they were running regarding the subcompact’s fuel tank, but Ford was clearly more focused on dollars than common sense, letting the chips fall where they may and shaking consumers’ trust in the industry as a whole.

The Ford Pinto represents a regrettable chapter in automotive history, and while we’d like to think things have changed, it seems like safety still often takes a backseat to the bottom line, as faulty airbags, EV battery fires, and issues around self-driving vehicles continue to make headlines. Social media, industry watchdogs, and government oversight now allow us to correlate and address such issues faster than ever, but the next Pinto could always be just around the corner…