Ford Motor Co. introduces the Pinto on Sept. 11, 1970. It went on to become one of the industry's hottest-selling subcompacts during the 1970s. The success of the Pinto enhanced the career of Lee Iacocca -- until an estimated 500 deaths and hundreds of injuries were linked to a faulty design that made the car's gasoline tank vulnerable to rupture after rear-end collisions.
On June 9, 1978, under pressure from the Center for Auto Safety and other groups, Ford agreed to recall 1.5 million Ford Pinto and 30,000 Mercury Bobcat sedan and hatchback models. Iacocca was fired by longtime Ford Chairman Henry Ford II the following month.
Ford customers filed 117 lawsuits, according to Peter Wyden in The Unknown Iacocca. In one 1979 landmark case, Indiana v. Ford Motor Co., Ford became the first U.S. corporation indicted and prosecuted on criminal homicide charges.
Foreign competition began rattling Detroit automakers in the late 1960s. Gasoline prices were on the rise. The Volkswagen Beetle was still formidable, and the VW Rabbit was on the drawing board. Datsun and Toyota were readying new models. Honda was preparing the Civic. AMC had the Gremlin. General Motors was readying its own import fighter, the Chevrolet Vega.
The Pinto was delayed by internal debate. Ford President Bunkie Knudsen insisted that Ford stick to where the profits were: large and medium-size vehicles. Iacocca, then executive vice president of Ford's North American Automotive Operations, countered that the imports would capture the American subcompact market unless Ford designed a contender. Knudsen lost out. Iacocca ordered a rush program to build the Pinto. In 1970, he became president of Ford.
Inside Ford, the Pinto became known as "Lee's car." He demanded that it weigh no more than 2,000 pounds and be priced no higher than $2,000.
The fundamental problem with the Pinto, according to Robert Lacey, author of Ford: The Men and the Machine, was that Iacocca only once before had worked on a new car that was really new. Iacocca, Lacey also wrote, had a don't-bother-me-with-trifles haughtiness toward Ford's designers and engineers.
And Iacocca was in a hurry. He wanted the Pinto in showrooms for the 1971 model year. That meant one of the shortest production development cycles in modern automotive history: just 25 months, when the normal time span was 43.
To meet the deadline, the Pinto's tooling had to be developed at the same time as product development. So, it was later alleged, when Ford engineers discovered a serious defect in the gasoline tank, it was too late. The tooling process was well underway.
The Pinto and its Mercury counterpart, the Bobcat, went on to become top-selling subcompacts in America in the early 1970s. Iacocca, recognized as the father of the Ford Mustang, was celebrated again.
GM's Vega had problems, as well, but the Pinto's performance in rear-end collisions began producing shocking headlines. Exploding gas tanks, lawsuits and bad publicity blunted what could have been an enormous success. People liked the car. Ford sold 328,275 in the U.S. in 1971, its first year on the market.
Mother Jones reported in its September/October 1977 issue that Ford officials knew -- and did nothing about -- preproduction crash tests that showed that rear-end collisions easily ruptured the Pinto's fuel system. Ford allegedly knew that there was a flaw in the tube leading to the gasoline-tank cap of pre-1976 Pintos. A rear-end collision would rip the tube away from the tank, and gasoline would pour onto the road.
And the gasoline tank could buckle after being jammed up against the differential housing, which contained four sharp, protruding bolts, according to Mother Jones. A spark from a cigarette, ignition or scraping metal is all it took to prompt a fire.
Because assembly-line machinery already was tooled when engineers found the defect, Mother Jones reported, senior Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway -- exploding gasoline tank and all -- even though Ford owned the patent on a much safer gasoline tank. Iacocca's $2,000 cost target left no money to protect the fuel system, not even a $1 piece of plastic that would have protected the gasoline tank from being punctured, Mother Jones claimed.
The low point for Ford came in 1979, when Indiana authorities charged the automaker with reckless homicide in a criminal trial. The case stemmed from a 1978 crash in which three girls in a Pinto had burned to death after the vehicle was rammed from behind.
Until then, criminal charges in product-liability cases were rare. Even though documents alleged Ford executives knew of the potential danger, only one prosecutor, in Elkhart County, Ind., tried to hold Ford or any of its executives criminally liable.
U.S. sales of the Pinto peaked in 1973 at 479,668. The following year, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned NHTSA to recall Pintos. By the time Indiana authorities indicted the automaker in 1979, U.S. sales of the Pinto had declined to 187,708.
There is no way of knowing how much Ford paid in Pinto suits because some were settled quietly out of court.
Ford ended Pinto output in July 1980, with just 68,179 assembled that year.