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July 11, 2005

The Pinto myth

About a month ago I reviewed an excellent new book, Tradeoffs. That book discussed the infamous case of the Ford Pinto. and Associated with the case is an the even more infamous Ford memo that allegedly considered whether to install an $11 part on the Pinto to reduce the risk of fuel-tank fires. The memo supposedly concluded that the cost was far less more than paying for the dead (@ a shockingly low $200,000 apiece), and so recommended that the part not be installed.

(To be clear: Professor Winter's book does not discuss or refer to the Ford memo. I thank him for the correction.)

But some of the conventional claims about the Pinto and the infamous memo are exaggerated. I just finished Gary T. Schwartz's "The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case," Rutgers Law Review, 43(1), Summer 1991: 1013-1068. Since this article doesn't seem to be available on the Web [UPDATE: thanks to Marc L., I now have a weblink for the article: it's here] and isn't available through Lexis, allow to me to list, briefly, some of its main points:

1. The memo apparently wasn't used or consulted in Ford's internal decision making. It was attached to a letter written to the National Highway Transportation Safety Bureau (NHTSA) concerning a proposed regulation. Plaintiffs tried to use the memo in support of punitive damages, but the trial judge ruled it inadmissible for that purpose (p. 1021).

2. The horrifically low figure of $200,000 per life was not Ford's value; it was a value used, with qualifications, within NHTSA at the time.

3. The Pinto's principal design defect--locating the fuel tank behind the axle--was not unique to the Pinto. It was "commonplace at the time in American cars" (p. 1027).

4. The Pinto's safety, as measured by occupant fatalities per million cars in operation during 1975 and 1976, was comparable to other subcompact cars, such as the AMC Gremllin, Chevy Vega, Datsun 1200, Toyota Corolla, and VW Beetle. (Granted, though, that the Pinto's record in rear-end fatalities seems to be worse.)

5. The prevailing precedent of the California Supreme Court at the time not only tolerated manufacturers trading off safety for cost, but apparently encouraged manufacturers to consider such tradeoffs (p. 1037).

All very interesting.

The second half of the article is a thoughtful discussion of what the legal standards for Pinto-like problems should be. At one point (p. 1055) Schwartz proposes to ". . . require car dealers to post stickers setting forth basic data as to the safety performance of the car model." He notes that NHTSA already compiles such data and that when the article was written, such data would have shown that a Chevy Cavalier was about 50% more hazardous than a Ford Taurus.

And I say that if a potential purchaser doesn't know that, other things equal, smaller, lighter, and cheaper cars are somewhat less safe than bigger, heavier, and more expensive cars, than he's too stupid to have a driver's license.

(One of the places where I saw a reference to Prof. Schwartz's article was at Overlawyered. See, for example, Ted Frank's entry here.)


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» The myth of the Pinto case from Overlawyered
No discussion of the modern litigation system seems to be complete without a reference to the Ford Pinto and the supposed "smoking-gun" memo found in the automaker's files. As Newmark's Door observes (Jul. 11), the... [Read More]

» Two posts from Lagniappe: Ted Frank's blog
The lovely aggregator Katie Newmark is on a roll, with posts about the historical dispute over the Or... [Read More]

» Ford Recall Further Sullies A Sullied Brand from
I've always had a queasy feeling about Ford motor vehicles, since the scandals and fatalties related to improper fuel-tank placement in the Ford Pinto, and later, defective tires on Ford Explorers. Now today comes word Ford will recall 3.8 million... [Read More]


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Other things are not equal. There is a difference between active safety and passive safety. Smaller cars get in fewer accidents. They break better and are more maneuverable so they avoid accidents. But you don't want to be in one if you crash into an SUV as the chance of getting seriously injured or killed is higher in a small car. I saw an interesting table once that broke down deaths in car accidents. It listed the death rate of different models of cars and the cars they crashed into normalized for the total number of cars. If my memory is correct, a Porsche Boxster was one of the safest cars. And other small cars did suprisingly well.


What is REALLY interesting is that American auto makers used to actualy turn out crap like the Pinto, Vega, and Grimlin. I was a young man at the time and many of my friends bought these rustmobiles. GODDAM they were horrible.
No wonder the US automakers lost so much ground to imports.


"The Pinto's safety, as measured by occupant fatalities per million cars in operation during 1975 and 1976, was comparable to other subcompact cars, such as the AMC Gremllin, Chevy Vega, Datsun 1200, Toyota Corolla, and VW Beetle. (Granted, though, that the Pinto's record in rear-end fatalities seems to be worse.)"

The issue is more than fatalities. People were surviving, but they were being severely crippled and disfigured when burning fuel would engulf the passenger compartments in rear-end accidents.

Matthew Brown

The vast majority of vehicles produced up through the mid 1970s were fire risks in a collision, especially when rear ended. If the Pinto was any worse, which I doubt, it would only have been through its small size and less strength.

The early Ford Mustang has a gas tank in the exact same place as the Pinto's, and is well known in enthusiast circles to be a fire risk. And it's far from the only example.

I have a 1967 Ford Thunderbird, which -- fairly uniquely for the time -- has a gas tank located above the rear axle, instead of behind it. It's probably less fire-prone because of that, but the trade-off is limited trunk room.

The fact is that the accepted build standards of the time did not require protection for the gas tank, and practically nobody provided it.


As I understand it, the Pinto was originally designed with a fuel cell - in essence a gas tank with a flexible liner, which would have been unusal for a small car at that time. When the standard tank was hit from behind it was pushed into the rear axle, rupturing it, the same as on most small cars. The Pinto just received bad press, it really wasn't any different.

Anyone want to discuss the Chevy Corvair?
oversteer due to too heavy engine (aluminum block didn't work out), unprotected steering column, but its cheating for a Ford test driver to demonstrate its bad points for the camera.


What's the point? That the Pinto was a fine and safe auto. You are f'ing nuts.


Why not drive a Miata backwards into a brick wall and see how the occupants fair? The point is, any small car, when rear ended at around 60mph, will fold up like a beer can. Fire or no fire, you're DEAD. I've owned six Pinto's, never had a problem. The wife had one Honda Accord. A piece of Sh*t. Thanks to the lawyers and our fawning media, I can't find a decent Pinto east of the Mississippi and Honda is still selling their tin can for a thousand over MSRP. Is there anyone dummer than the American consumer?

Billy The Blogging Poet

Sorry, I lost your post yesterday but found it and added it to the Tarheel Tavern today.


The problem with the Pinto was not about crumpling in 60 mph rear-end collisions. It was about crumpling in 30 mph rear-end collisions, then bursting into flames and incinerating its occupants. If the burn victims were lucky, they died--those who lived faced a lifetime of crippling pain and disfigurement. These were unneccessary deaths which Ford could have prevented but for a bad executive decision.

The whole fiasco is an excellent example of why businesses require more, not less, regulation and oversight. Corporations naturally tend to focus on maximizing profits at the expense of consumer wellbeing; the only way to make companies answerable to the people--rather than to stockholders--is by enacting strict safety regulations and backing them up with regular audits and inspections.


Given the number of Pintos on the road, and the fact that only 27 people died from fuel-fed fires, and a number of those were in high-speed collisions, the 30-mph collision scenario that Rangergordon describes does not seem like an especially high riskunless one is to posit that an auto manufacturer should never sell a small, cheap car, and is willing to accept the environmental and social consequences from this regulation through litigation.

Perhaps Ford could have prevented some small modicum of risk with an additional $20. But why stop there? There are many other small risks that can be prevented for $20. And before you know it, the $2000 car isn't a $2000 car any more. Either ban everything except the boxiest Volvos, or accept that cheaper cars aren't going to be as safe as the more expensive cars.

(Of course, having larger cars has increased the number of pedestrian deaths, but we can't blame car companies for that externality, can we? Yet.)

David R

I worked on the line building Pinto's at Talbotville Ford Plant from 71-75. Even hung gas tanks for a few evenings. The worst thing that Ford production managers did was remove the tupperware shield as we used to call it off of completed cars in the shipping yards under the cover of darkness. We were always running out of parts, be short a few hundred a day, so we would take a few guys out to the rail yard in the middle of the night and take parts off of completeed cards to keep the lines running. So I always saw that as an indication of how repentant Ford was.


i love my pinto its really easy just to bolt on a peice of lexan big enough to cover up the differential doing just what ford should of done, enopugh said

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