The Devil’s Hatchback: The horrifying true story of the Ford Pinto.

I am not an aficionado of cars (though I do own one, as most people do), but I know a lemon when I see one. Historically speaking, with the possible exception of the Ford Edsel, another infamous product by that company, the Pinto, is likely to go down in history as the worst car of all time. That’s not just because it was ugly and poorly designed. Clearly it was that. Indeed, the Ford Pinto could well qualify as Satan’s favorite subcompact, due to the horrifying circumstances under which it gained its reputation in the late 1970s as an exploding firetrap on wheels.

The story of the Pinto begins in the late 1960s with a Ford executive, Lee Iacocca, who was later to become Ford’s president and a popular figure in the 1980s. Iacocca’s idea was to offer a very small, light, inexpensive car, costing less than $2,000, to compete both with new American subcompacts being offered, like the Chevy Vega, and European imports such as the VW Beetle. The basic design of the Pinto was finished in December 1968, and Iacocca wanted it on the market for the 1971 model year. To keep it light the Pinto had an inline-four engine, and just about everything was scaled down to make it very, very small. Ford hoped this would be a good consumer car in an era when increasing political and economic instability was causing gas prices to rise and (potentially) wages to fall.

Here’s a Ford Pinto commercial from about 1972. Don’t you want to gallop right out and buy one?

The Pinot first went on sale on September 11, 1970. A fastback coupe was at first the only model available, but the hatchback version, which would become the most popular, came out a few months later. Sales were pretty good. Consumer Reports ranked the Pinto in the middle of the pack of new subcompact cars, worse than the Vega, but better than the AMC Gremlin, which in some impossible twist of fate actually managed to be uglier than the Pinto. The early 1970s were the nadir of the U.S. auto industry, at least until 2009; in that depressing environment the Pinto was not doing too badly. Then things literally went up in smoke.

In May 1972, a woman named Lily Gray was driving down a California freeway in a 1972 Pinto. Her passenger was a 13-year-old boy, Richard Grimshaw. The Pinto had engine trouble and stalled. It was struck from behind by another vehicle. The Pinto’s flimsy bumper crumpled like tinfoil, and poorly-placed bolts under the car punctured the gas tank. The car exploded in a fireball that left Gray dead and Grimshaw horribly burned over most of his body–and permanently disfigured. The Grimshaw case was not the only one. Numerous other people–no one is certain how many–were also killed and injured in Pintos that turned into lethal incendiary bombs in crashes that should not have been nearly that bad. An investigation uncovered the culprit: the Pinto’s fuel tank was placed behind the rear axle instead of over the rear axle, as was customary in most cars. Furthermore, the super-flimsy bumper and the lack of “crush space,” because the car was so small, made the gas tank especially vulnerable in rear-end collisions.

It got worse. Much, much worse. The Grimshaw lawyers ultimately uncovered a damning memo in Ford’s files, attached to a routine regulatory filing, which showed that the Ford company knew about the defects in the gas tanks before accidents started happening, but had decided not to do anything about it because it was too expensive. Ford figured that the costs of paying damages in wrongful death lawsuits was less than the cost of recalling the cars and putting safety measures on the gas tanks. What was the cost of putting safety measures on the gas tanks? $11 per car.

The outrage that accompanied these revelations, published by Mother Jones magazine in 1977 as the Grimshaw case went to trial, swamped Ford in a firestorm of controversy. The jury was so offended that when they decided the case in 1978, not only did they give Richard Grimshaw every penny of the $2.5 million damages he asked for, but they socked it to Ford in the kisser by levying a staggering $125 million in punitive damages against the company. This figure was later reduced on appeal, but Ford still had to pay more in punitive damages than it did to Grimshaw; a judge who upheld the verdict called the company’s behavior “reprehensible in the extreme.” Ford’s feeble arguments that trading lives for dollars was a rational exercise in “cost-benefit analysis” went unavailing. In a later case, also involving an exploding Pinto, the state of Indiana tried to prosecute the Ford company for negligent homicide. That attempt failed, but the damage was already done. Ford reluctantly recalled the Pinto and finally had to shell out its measly $11 per car to fix the design flaws.

pinto 2

In addition to exploding spectacularly at the slightest touch, the Ford Pinto was offered in attractive colors like this. How charming!

Ford continued to offer the Pinto after the gas tank cases ended, but sales never recovered. The car, now derided as immoral as well as ugly and poorly-designed, was quietly withdrawn from the market in 1980 and never reintroduced. Lee Iacocca was fired from Ford in 1978 (though it did not have to do solely with the Pinto) and ultimately rebuilt his career at Chrysler, where he turned the company around from near-bankruptcy. By some estimates as many as 200 people were killed by Ford Pintos, though that number is almost undoubtedly too high; nevertheless, given Ford’s callous disregard for human life, under these circumstances even one death is too many.

The Ford Pinto and the Grimshaw case are now classic curriculum in law school classes. I remember learning about it when I was in law school more than 20 years ago. One law scholar wrote, in the early 1990s, an article arguing that the moral outrage of the case is based on “myth,” and that there were extenuating circumstances that made it not look so bad for Ford as it did at first glance. I read this article as part of my research for this blog (it’s here, if you want to read it). Let me just say that not only I was not persuaded, but I find the analysis contained in that article especially amoral, disgusting and unacceptable.

The bad press of the Ford Pinto will trail it until the end of the auto industry. By the 2000s various trade publications had repeatedly named the Pinto one of the worst, if not the worst, car of all time. It was widely lampooned in popular culture, such as the 1984 film Top Secret where a low-speed fender-bender sparks a Pinto to explode into a fireball. All gags aside, many real people were killed and maimed by this detestable vehicle and the appalling corporate decision-making process that brought it into being. If a chunk of steel, glass and rubber could be called evil, it’s safe to say they’re driving Ford Pintos in Hell.

The top image is a composite by me but includes a photo of the Ford Pinto by Wikimedia Commons user dave_7, used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The lower photo of the Pinto is by Wikimedia Commons user Morven and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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6 Comments

  1. I once saw a TV documentary about this case. Anyone know what it’s entitled and if it’s online anywhere?

  2. Catchy title for your article but not entirely accurate. Over axle fuel placement was NOT customary in the 1970s and in fact, it was almost entirely unheard of. Almost all cars had fuel tanks behind the rear axle at that time. The Ford Mustang was just as if not more dangerous than the pinto due to its fuel tank not only behind the rear axle, but the top of the tank served as the floor of the trunk. Yet everyone gushes over the mustang as such a great car. In fact the mustang did not get a safe over axle fuel tank design until 2005. The Ford Crown Victoria had rear mounted tanks until that model just recently went out of production. More people have burned in side saddle fuel tank equipped GM trucks than ever burned in Pintos. Ford literally sold Millions of Pintos during its production run, and it has been proven that the death rate for that car line was no higher than average for cars of that type. Was it a dangerous car? Yea it was, but so were Vegas, Beetles , Gremlins and all of the other small cars of the time. And as far as being poorly built? I was around when Pintos were everywhere and we owned a 1974 Pinto wagon in our family. The cars were actually quite rugged and reliable and could take a beating. The one we had had 185.000 miles on it when I sold in in 1990 and it was still running good. The 2300 engine developed for the Pinto went on to power turbo thunderbirds , ford rangers and were used as industrial engines in generators and manlifts for many years after the pinto disappeared. It was a very rugged and reliable engine. The rack and pinion system from the pinto went on to be used in untold numbers of hot rods and custom cars even to this day. The pinto wasn’t nearly as bad as people want to believe.

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