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Don't Like Government Regulation? How'd You Like Another Pinto?

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Ford Pinto. (Wikipedia Image)September 11th: A day that lives in infamy for more reasons than one. Thirty-one years to the day before the vicious attack that took so many lives on this date in New York City in 2001, the Ford Motor Co. introduced the Pinto. A small car long overdue, but fairly lousy even by the low standard of its day, a cynical big toe into the roiling small car waters that the Dearborn-based company has only just got around to atoning for with small car winners like the Fiesta and Focus. Not coincidentally, only one day before Ford's launch, Chevrolet had introduced its own embarrassing small car, the Vega, which was supposed to fight off the imports through the seventies, but that's another sad seventies' story, filed under "Sad Stories, GM, 1970s."

Weighing in at under 2000 lbs., the Pinto was a true subcompact when those words actually meant something. Earlier Ford of America's small cars (think Ford Falcon, Mercury Comet) had been called "compact" and so they were--albeit only by the bloated ideal of those faraway days of wine and chromium. But the U.S. market was demanding truly small cars--Volkswagen was at the top of its sales game, the Japanese threat was coming fully into view--and Ford was going to give us one, whether we liked it or not. There seems little question, in retrospect, that Ford didn't rate the critical faculties of Americans who wanted such a car very highly. Either that, or it was deemed deserving of punishment.

1975 Pinto Runaround. (Wikipedia Image)For it was the measure of Ford's highly politicized international structure--and more so the enormity of its wealth back then--that it didn't simply rely on one of the perfectly reasonable small cars it had engineered and sold in Europe for years, and in the end, borrowing only decent four-cylinder engines from it's overseas colleagues to make the Pinto possible for the U.S. market. Front-drive, transverse engines for efficient use of space, nimble handling--perish the thoughts. This is one small car that made you pay for its size, in so many ways. Cramped, slow, technologically backward, badly assembled, I could go on. But it was cheap and you could buy it at your neighborhood Ford store. That counted for a lot.

We wouldn't be fair if we didn't pause here to recall the honest truth that many of the Pinto's contemporaries' small fry were pretty crummy, too. The Vega, an Olympian rust-bucket with an under-developed aluminum four-cylinder, blew engines nearly as fast as it body panels disintegrated. The beloved Beetle was no stranger to iron oxide and was itself an ill-handling death trap with lethal seats, while the tinny Toyotas and Datsuns that had sprung up to share VW's lunch weren't much better. But, curiously, Ford was capable of better work--anyone who's driven one of its late sixties' Cortinas or Escorts, as sold in Europe--decent, if technologically centrist cars (no front-drive here)--knows the score. (Full disclosure: I own three Cortinas.)

1969 Ford Lotus Cortina Mark II. (Jamie Kitman photo)With all it didn't have going for it, the Pinto's greatest legacies arose from its unfortunate propensity to explode its gas tank when hit from behind. Bad press and a general vibe killer, such explosive tendencies--not, it should also be pointed out in fairness, a Ford exclusive--also remind us, frankly, why all the blather we're treated to every few years about tort reform is so misguided.

Consider the matter of Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company, wherein it emerged that Ford had put its new Pinto on sale with its executives' full knowledge that a chassis bolt had been placed in a position where it was likely to cause the gas tank to explode in rear impacts, even at relatively low speed. (This accident was a high-speed one; ironically occurring when a nearly new Pinto stalled on a highway after a faulty carburetor float flooded its engine.) At trial, it was shown that the company openly chose to overlook the gas tank hazard after running an internal analysis which concluded that the $130 million cost of making a design change would outstrip that of settling an anticipated 180 wrongful death and 180 additional burn injury cases each year. Ford's heinous math turned out all wrong.

No one went to jail, of course, because no one from Ford was criminally prosecuted, this being America and all. But a jury awarded the Grimshaw victim--a 13-year-old boy burned over 90 percent of his body in an accident that killed the family friend who'd been driving him--exactly the $130 million Ford figured it was saving, which amount was substantially punitive (damages paid in excess of actual economic damages). Shamed to act, the government finally insisted Ford recall every Pinto on the road, over a million, to address the tank hazard.

Ford deserved to be punished for the Pinto and, at prices like those, it was. It had to think twice before compromising its customers' safety so egregiously again. However, under tort reform legislation being considered again today by a Republican House, punitive damages in a case like Grimshaw might be capped at $250,000. The total damages awarded to the burned child would today be limited in total amount to less than one percent of the 1970 judgment.

Should we really be making it easier for companies to cut, predict and amortize liability costs, knowing, at this late date, that safety concerns will surely be at stake? Call it reform if you like, but this is the plan.

As a lawyer who does not practice in the courts and has no special love for my profession, let me hasten to say the liability system we Americans have is highly imperfect, failing our people as often as our corporations and more. But at least it's a system. "Tort reform" seeks to eliminate what is often the only check -- and redress -- we have against corporate wrongdoing. If the tort reformers have their way, the price of killing innocents with products known to be defective and potentially lethal will fall with inevitably, disastrous consequences.

2011 Ford Fiesta.Ironically, fine new Fords like the aforementioned Fiesta and Focus, with their batteries of airbags and 40 mpg fuel economy are very much the product of the regulatory environment that tort reform's backers would also gut. If Ford's experience is anything to go by, a little government regulation and the threat of unpredictable, high-ticket lawsuits, was a better idea.

NOTE: Keen readers will note that Ford did sell the Cortina in America, but only half-heartedly. Neither built here nor marketed with enthusiasm, the Cortina was killed to make way for the home-grown Maverick, a truly backward subcompact it ran circles around.

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