The model who was born as an icon but was a death trap

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The oil crisis of the early 1970s forced American manufacturers to change their paradigm: giants like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler They had to find more viable and economical models as an alternative to the pompous, idle vehicles with which they had then populated North American roads.

From Europe, some mid-size models began to arrive in the American market, were very well received by the local public, and their global consolidation also accelerated. Toyota Corollareleased in 1966 and already demonstrated its efficiency and reliability in the face of the austerity of Japanese industry.

Lee Iacocca Became president of Ford Motor Company in 1970, catapulted by The resounding success of MustangThe family sports car he created and promoted years ago and which not only broke all sales records, but also became the symbol of a renewed company.




He had a large safe for family use.

The new and ambitious challenge of the “father of the Ford Mustang” at the beginning of the decade, then appeared very well defined: to develop a new economical vehicle for the average American public which would be an American alternative to the Toyota Corolla and cost less than 2,000 $. won’t be anymore.

was born like this ford pinto, in 1971, with an unprecedented development process for this period of only 24 months, and with all the qualities that Ford management envisioned for its all-new compact model. It positioned itself as one of the most accessible vehicles on the market and in addition to offering very low fuel consumption, it had a capacity for five people and a very generous trunk volume. Competition for the Corolla and the Europeans was considered fierce.

Ford Pinto, explosive car

Pinto crash test with Chevrolet Impala.

innovative and economical, the Pinto marked the new American dream of the 70s and this was reflected in the dealerships: in just one year it sold more than half a million units and became the leader in its category. But his fate was marked by tragedy. And because of a serious miscalculation in the company’s cost strategy.




Ford Pinto crash test.

The accident that changed Pinto’s story

Lily Gray, a young Californian, was one of thousands of users who already owned a Ford Pinto in 1972. While traveling with her 13-year-old son, Richard Grimshaw, their car came to rest on a freeway. Another vehicle could not prevent it from hitting the rear, although at a lower speed: only 45 km/h.

Unsurprisingly, what could have been a minor traffic incident turned into a tragedy with big consequences and consequences as painful as they were enormous. The collision blew the Pinto’s fuel tank and the car burst into flames, its structure warped by heat and its doors locked so occupants could not exit. A few seconds after impact, pinto turned into a ball of fireThe driver died of burns, while Grimshaw survived, although he had to undergo several operations and is still suffering serious consequences.

The Ford Pinto turned into a ball of fire.


The Ford Pinto turned into a ball of fire.

As if that weren’t enough, the horrific episode added other failures that landed the Pinto in contention: more than 26,000 units were called for overhaul because the accelerator pedal stuck, and others. 220,000 vehicles had to be checked for carburettor problems.

Of course, it didn’t take long for young Grimshaw’s trial to happen, where he argued that the Pinto was “a dangerous car and particularly vulnerable to rear-end collisions”. In their strategy to defeat Ford, the lawyers relied on demonstrating the serious flaws of the model with credible evidence. And they got them for others.

An ad from when she was successful.


An ad from when she was successful.

According to documents obtained by lawyers, the case suggests that “some of the people responsible for the development of the Pinto” may have been aware of its problems before launching it on the market. The documents clearly showed that the fuel tank, being located behind the rear axle, was vulnerable to rear-end collision damage as it could move and strike the axle bolts, which were unprotected. It hurt him.

After the rupture of the tank, the contact of the fuel with the elements of the asphalt, the engine or the exhaust was sufficient to cause combustion. As they verified, fires with an impact of more than 48 km/h were practically inevitable; And once the speed exceeds 60 km/h, the results are quite disastrous: the structure of the body is deformed and the doors get stuck.

This problem may not have been specific to Ford models, but was common to many models of the time. In the case of Pinto, what Turning it into a death trap was a failed strategy by the company,

Cover of the magazine investigating the Pinto case.


Cover of the magazine investigating the Pinto case.

In 1977, after gaining access to an internal Ford memo, Mother Jones magazine published an investigation which found that Ford had concluded that fixing the Pinto’s tank problem cost between $5 and $11 per unit. would be a higher figure than the cost-benefit analysis of the recall. , In this conclusion, on the other hand, Ford assumed that The cost for one life was no more than $200,000.,

The spooky calculations were decisive for Ford, which felt it would lose less money in lawsuits and damages than launching a massive campaign to redesign the fuel tank and repair faulty Pintos.

The person who carried out the investigation, Mark Dovey, concluded that it was already known before the launch that Pinto offered a high probability of fire And the solutions were also analyzed. But the pace at which the project was imposed, the evolutions of the production chain which required improvements, and the specific architecture of the model opposed the implementation of the necessary modifications.

The Mother Jones reveal, though belated, is one of the most significant calls for a mass overhaul of history, as well as a reputational blow to the company. While Grimshaw ultimately won the case and Ford had to pay around $128 million in compensation.The automaker faced a flurry of 117 other lawsuits for hundreds of dead or injured Pinto owners.

Forced by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), Ford recalled approximately 2 million Pintos manufactured between 1971 and 1976 for review. Despite its fatal flaws, the model sold over three million units when it was discontinued in 1980. It was replaced by the European Ford Escort, but by then it was too late: among so many successes, the brand also stood out. A model of one of the most dangerous in history,

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