40 Years After the Pinto's Debut, Remembering its Exploding Gas Tanks

safety, Ford, Pinto
Mark Dowie, the dogged investigator who broke the story of the Ford Pinto's exploding gas tanks way back in 1977, was then Mother Jones' business manager. A sobering tale, it charges that the Ford Motor Company ignored evidence that an $11 plastic tray could have prevented its cars from bursting into flames (and killing at least 27 people). It was Dowie's first big story for the magazine, published after a six-month investigation.

The Ford Pinto was vulnerable from the rear. (Flickr/Joost J. Bakker photo)Dowie, whose most recent book is Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (MIT Press), found his smoking gun in a scene right out of a movie. All the Presidents' Men, perhaps? According to Dowie, Ford created a blizzard of paperwork in its lobbying effort against a federal rear-end collision standard. In an era long before digital records, his sleuthing led to a row of huge filing cabinets at the Department of Transportation, where he was told he could take his time.

It took a week going through those files for Dowie to unearth a Ford memo entitled "Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires." In it, Ford's director of auto safety estimated that equipping the Pinto with the $11 part would prevent 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries and 2,100 burned cars, for a total cost of $137 million. Paying out $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury and $700 per vehicle would cost only $49.15 million.

Later analysts have speculated that the memo isn't quite as cold-blooded as it appears, and that Ford was merely quoting existing federal data. But its existence, and Dowie's story, were enough to deep-six the Pinto and leave it with a stigma for all time. Images of rear-ended Pintos turning into fireballs, are seared on the collective memory. Here's a video of one such rear-end crash test:

The plantiffs in a lawsuit over one fatal 1972 Pinto crash case were initially awarded more than $127 million by a jury, though that amount was substantially reduced by the judge in the case. Another case resulted in a $30 million settlement. The Pinto is not remembered fondly, and it's become a symbol of auto safety compromises. Luckily, today's Fords are much better-built.

Dowie today has mellowed a bit about the Pinto, which is celebrating its 40th birthday (1971 was the first year). In fact, Dowie would rather drive a repaired Pinto than an equally infamous model, the Chevrolet Corvair (brought down by Ralph Nader). "The Pinto was actually a pretty reasonable car, except for that one flaw which you can fix with an $11 part," Dowie said. "It was a fabulous vehicle that got great gas mileage."

As we talked, Dowie surfed the Hemmings Motor News online want ads and found a Pinto that had been a Car and Driver project car. A bit steep at $24,900. An excellent 10,000-mile original, in mint green, however, was $12,500 at a dealer in San Diego. Some cheaper ones are here. Mark Dowie and the Pinto, reunited again after all these years?
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safety, Ford, Pinto

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