Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Reinterpreting Automobile History: Myth and the Relative Safety of the Ford Pinto
The last of the early 1970s subcompacts and perhaps the most demonized car of all time was the Ford Pinto. Known during its development as Lee Iacocca’s car, it is only briefly in his An Autobiography. History was been kind to Iacocca, however, as his legacy remains tied to the resounding success of the Mustang. Iacocca is known as the father of the Mustang, but not the Pinto.
The Pinto, like the Vega, was a highly innovative car in its day. It was the first so-called “World Car,” assembled in the U.S., using engines from Britain and Germany, and transmissions from Germany. Thus, the Pinto’s assembly line was spatially global; Eli Whitney’s early 19th century idea first implemented at his Mill Rock, Connecticut, armory was now manufacturing that crossed national borders and continents.
I owned a 1973 Pinto between 1974 and 1985. It was equipped with the smaller 1.6 liter English Kent Engine and a four speed transmission. It was barebones -- no air conditioner in this vehicle, even though part of the time we lived in New Orleans. It never failed us, and was the object of a failed theft at the Baltimore Pimlico Park and Ride lot. The cars clutch made a shrill noise for years, as its throw-out bearing needed help but also did not give up. The passenger side door developed a terrible rust rash, and I eventually replaced that door with one bought at a junk yard. When our daughter Lisa was born, my wife insisted we sell the car out of fear that the vehicle would be rear-ended and burn.
During the 1970s more Pintos were made than Vegas and Gremlins combined. By the end of the decade, however, the National Highway Traffic Administration deemed the car unsafe, an article on it in Mother Jones was titled “Pinto Madness,” and several major lawsuits had resulted in high value monetary settlements and criminal indictments. Its reputation – deserved or not – frightened the public for good reason. Even a minor rear end collision, it was claimed, pushed the bolts from the rear differential into the gas tank, causing a fire, that might kill occupants, who could also be trapped in the vehicle due to simultaneously jammed doors. An Elkhart, Indiana, fatal accident involving teenage girls brought the issue home to an angry public, enraged by the release of a Ford cost-benefit analysis memo asserting that it was less expensive for the fatalities to take place than to remedy the design with a $11 modification. Subsequent historical work has shown that the Pinto case has a mythical element to it, and that many of the smaller cars of the day were as unsafe as the Pinto. The Pinto fire and explosion episode has been said to usher in a new era of corporate responsibility and accountability to consumers. Recent events, including Takata airbag injuries, seem to belie the claim that corporate ethics in the automobile industry have dramatically improved over the past four decades.
My point in bringing up the Pinto story is that the simple tale tells of a car egregiously unsafe; yet, it has been shown that it was no less safe than many of its competitors from the 1970s. Media and government, however, shaped the Pinto's fate, and to this day an uncritical commentator will fall into the trap of misrepresenting what really happened. I am not saying that the Pinto was an exceptionally safe car -- for it was not. But it was not an outlier as well. It did reflect a time in automobile history when quality was far lower than what we now expect, and risk was very much a part of being a car owner. The milieu was different.
Finally, so much of auto history remains well-worn stories recycled from one author to the next. This includes me -- get to archives, and mine them deep!
 See Mark Dowie, “Pinto Madness,” Mother Jones, (September, 1977). www.motherjones.com/politics/1977/09/pinto-madness. Accessed 6/20/16; Gary T. Schwartz, “The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case,” Rutgers Law Review, 43(1990), 1013-1068; Dennis A. Giola, “Pinto Fires and personal Ethics: A Script Analysis of Missed Opportunities,” Journal of Business Ethics, 11 (May, 1992), 379-89; Matthew T. Lee and M. David Ermann, “’Pinto Madness’ as a Flawed landmark Narrative; An Organizational and Network Analysis,” Social Problems, 46 (February, 1999), 30-47.