The Pinto- “Lee’s Car”

A faulty design in the Ford Pinto’s gasoline tank was the cause of over 500 deaths and hundreds of injuries for Pinto owners.  The defect made the gasoline tank vulnerable to explosion after rear-end collision.

A California jury awarded an unprecedented $128 million dollars for a claim against Ford.  A Los Angeles woman died and her 13 year-old passenger was burned over 90 percent of her body when their stalled Pinto was rear ended by a car traveling at 35 mph on the Los Angeles freeway.  The Pinto burst into flames.

On June 9, 1978, Ford recalled 1.5 million Ford Pintos and 30,000 Mercury Bobcat sedans and hatchback models.  Ford customers filed 117 lawsuits, according to Peter Wyden in The Unknown Iacocca.  The 1979 landmark case, Indiana v. Ford Motor Co., made the automaker the first U.S. corporation indicted and prosecuted on criminal homicide charges.

Iacocca, who became President of Ford in 1970, had little experience working on a car that was a new design.  The production period for the Ford Pinto was just 25 months and the normal production time span was 43 months.  The Ford Pinto became known as “Lee’s car” and he wanted a subcompact that “weighed no more than 2,000 pounds and sold for $2,000 dollars.”

Ford sold 328,275 Pintos in 1971, its first year.  Lee got what he wanted, but the public paid the price.  The $2,000 dollar limit left no room to protect the gasoline tank, even though Ford owned the patent on a much safer gasoline tank.  With no room between the gasoline tank and differential housing and a flaw in the tube leading to the gasoline tank of the pre-1976 Pintos, a rear end collision would ignite gasoline that had leaked from the tank and the car would burst into flames.

Ford was aware of the defect, but decided to manufacture anyway.  In addition, a disclosure in a civil trial stated that Ford found it cheaper to pay off the families of the victims of Pinto fires than the $137 million it would cost to fix the Pinto immediately.

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