Robert Eidschun was the mastermind behind the classic Ford Pinto. This groovy design captured the attention of everyone in the 70s. It was in production from 71 till the end of the decade and over 3 million were produced. Everyone fell in love with its clean lines and slick hatchback, but underneath this smokin exterior there was a much more sinister and hotter truth.
It was discovered in 73 that the Pinto’s fuel system had a major problem, it could suddenly burst into flames if the fuel tank was punctured in low speed collisions. In many of these cases the victims could find themselves trapped in this death machine, burning up with the car. This flaw led to the recall of over 1.5 million vehicles, and numerous lawsuits filed against Ford. This recall was no laughing matter, it still sits as one of the biggest recalls in history.
After the release of Ford’s cost-benefit analysis paper called “Fatalities Associated with Crash Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires” submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Ford’s business ethics came under attack. In this report it was revealed that the Environmental and Safety Engineering division at Ford came to the conclusion that it was cheaper to not spend the $11 to reduce the fire risk on all the cars, and instead pay for the injuries the car caused on a case by case basis.
Seeing an injustice Mother Jones brought this issue to light in their hit piece “Pinto Madness.” Despite the good intentions of the writer, they leaned heavily on the emotional impact of this problem and over exaggerated the estimated injury count by over 2 fold. Mother Jones said there would be anywhere from 500-900 deaths, while the actual figure estimated 180 burn related deaths and 180 injuries. The emotional backlash caused by Mother Jones continued with them labeling the Pinto as a “firetrap” and that Ford was “callously trading lives for profits.”
One of the biggest things that seems to be forgotten from this controversy is that other cars from different manufacturers were made just as poorly. A study that was completed after this “Pinto Madness” concluded that the fire risk of the Pinto was no greater than the other car models of the time. The Ford Pinto seemed to serve as the scapegoat. Another study on the fatality rates of the Pinto as well as other cars of the 70s showed that fires, and rear-end fires in particular, were a small portion of overall fatalities. It was found that only 1% of automobile collisions would result in fire, and even if a fire was started, only 4% were fatal, meaning 1 and every 2500 collision was the problem on everyone's mind.
While they may have fought a bit dirty and unethically, the public outcry caused by Mother Jones did eventually lead to positive change. The poor safety inspection of the Pinto led the NHTSA forcing Ford to do that historic recall and ensure future models were properly tested. Thankfully this example that was made of Ford now ensures much higher safety standards in all vehicles produced today.