Ford certainly loves its horses. Ford Mustang not only created a new class of car, but it has remained with us to this day. The Ford Bronco made a comeback and achieved iconic status that few had anticipated in the early 1990s, when production ended. But there’s a third pony in this stable, and the one the automaker prefers to forget: the Ford Pinto.
Introduced this week in 1970, the Pinto was created out of a desire to counter the growing number of European and Japanese subcompacts in the American market. Ford will go on to sell more than 3.3 million Bentus, but not without a great deal of controversy. Perhaps the most famous of the poorly developed cars of the 1970s that led to Detroit’s downfall among consumers.
car was born
Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca was an avid marketer, and by nature knew what consumers wanted. But by 1967, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Datsun were responding to a sign of what buyers wanted: economy small cars. It’s not that Detroit hadn’t figured this out before. In 1960, the Big Three released their first American compact cars. But as expected, these small cars grew every year, to the point where they were almost the size of midsize cars.
Foreign automakers provided the solution, importing cars originally designed to fit into the narrow streets of the Middle Ages into European countries. But Iacocca was concerned that foreign automakers would soon take over the entire American small car market. He decided to take the threat head-on.
But Iacocca encountered other executives who did not agree, most notably Ford’s new president, Simon “Bunkie” Knudsen, whom he recently brought to Ford after spending his career at General Motors. Knudsen did not see the need for a small, domestically compact car. Ford was about to introduce the Maverick, its replacement for the Falcon.
But Iacocca insisted that a smaller car was needed than the Maverick. His case was bolstered by reports that other US automakers were planning to introduce sub-compacts. Henry Ford II gave Iacocca the green light in January 1969.
After obtaining approval, a group of nearly thirty inspected the small cars being sold. The Volkswagen Beetle was seen as the main target, as it was the most popular small car at the time. But other cars were also checked, including the Fiat 850 and 124, the Opel Kadett, the Toyota Corolla, the Vauxhall Viva and Britain’s Ford Escort. The team found Opel to be the best, while offering the best ride. Toyota was the quietest, while Fiat cars were the most comfortable.
Engineers and designers were given criteria: a new car should weigh no more than 2,000 pounds and cost no more than $2,000.
When design began, Dearborn looked to Europe for engines, and soon decided to use the Kent overhead 4-cylinder engine that debuted as a 1.0-liter unit in a 1960 Ford Anglia. By 1967, it had grown to 1.6 liters and was used in the Cortina GT. . Brought from the US, it generated 75 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque. Ford also offered the 2.0-liter Cologne 4 engine as an option. Built by Ford of Germany, it produces 100 horsepower and 120 pound-feet of torque and will be offered as an option. A 4-speed manual transmission was standard; 3-speed automatic is available with a larger engine.
A new pony is born
At 163 inches long with a 94.2-inch wheelbase, the Pinto was small in an era when cars were usually more than three and a half feet taller. The size of the Lilliputian car was no accident. The rear of the car was shortened to save weight and money. Given its retail price, Ford needed to save money where it could. Even the tires were cheap: 13-inch biased. The interior was basic, with plenty of plastic and vinyl covered seating.
All in all, it was developed in a quick 25 months, and the new car didn’t usually take 43 months to develop in that time. Since it would take 18 months to get the tools, design, engineering and quality assurance, you didn’t have the time.
The 1971 Ford Pinto hit the market in the fall of 1970, just as the Chevrolet Vega and AMC Gremlin arrived. Chrysler offered a Dodge Colt, built by Mitsubishi, and Plymouth Cricket, manufactured by Hillman in England. But Ford’s new pony proved popular, selling 352,402 units in its first year of production. Only the Falcon and Mustang sold more in their first year.
A horse of a different color
But the shortcuts taken and the money saved to make the car profitable will soon pay off.
In May 1972, Lillian Gray, a California housewife, was burnt to death when another car broke out from behind and caught fire. The passenger survived, but with disfiguring burns.
The defect that started the fire was known to Ford. Their rear crash tests saw them catch fire in all 40 tests conducted at speeds in excess of 25 mph. Even before it hit the market, the company’s crash tests saw the Pinto ignite in 8 out of 11 tests.
This was because the gas tanks were placed behind the rear axle but in front of the rear bumper. Upon impact, the fuel filler neck ruptures, which leads to a fire. While this placement was no different than many small cars of the time, during development the Pinto’s rear end was shortened to save money. Once the defect was identified, Ford built the car anyway, with the assembly line mechanism already primed.
Even more shocking, Ford has done a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the costs associated with lives lost due to faulty design and the legal costs involved, against the cost of correcting the defect. They concluded that it would cost an additional $11 per vehicle, or $113 million. But the damages compensation would only be $49 million in legal payments, so the defect was left in place.
While the company fixed the problem in a 1977 design update, the company ended up paying millions in damages, recalling 1.5 million cars, being accused of reckless murders and causing untold damage to its reputation. The foreign automakers, the ones that Pinto was supposed to defeat, eventually won market share.
Production of the bento ended in 1980.
The following year, Ford launched its latest advertising slogan: Quality is Job #1.
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