Everyone thinks they know the story of the Pinto, but what is the truth behind the myth?
The story began in 1976 when Mother Jones a popular Magazine in the 70's, reported 800-900 people died each year in Pinto fires . With the Pulitzer Prize winning story "Pinto Madness".
However Mother Jones could never back up the statistics on those numbers and needless to say, never had another story quite like it and they faded into obscurity. But it sold a lot of magazines at the time.
It was soon followed up by a 60 Minutes television report who took the Mother jones story and increased the number to thousands of deaths per year. And a fire storm spread across the country.
However, In 1976, The same year that story hit.
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA, the agency that actually keeps the records on these things, as well as the organization that conducts the crash tests), listed total number of deaths attributed to fire at 27 total over the 6 years the Ford Pinto's were manufactured to that point. So with over 2.4 million Pinto's on the road at the time, the actual numbers were really comparable to other compact cars of its day like the Chevy Vega, in fact, it's rating was safer than that of the Gremlin, the Pacer and all the Japanese imports of its day like the Datsun B210. All of which had greater deaths related to fiery crashes as well as deaths per million sold.
So, if they didn't get the numbers from the NHTSA, where did Mother Jones come up with such a heinous fiery death toll?
You would have to ask them, we don't work for them and they never backed up the numbers with any actual statistics.
Looking at the numbers.
NHTSA -27 actual deaths over 6 year period (stats)
Mother Jones- 4,800-5,400 deaths' over 6 year period. (no stats)
But what about the fiery rear end explosion and video?
At the time all bumpers were a standard height, in these test videos you can see they jacked up the back of the Impala to lower the front bumper to get it under the Pinto's rear trying to achieve the desired effect by getting under the bumper and making direct contact with the gas tank.. , still no explosion, because there was no ignition source.
The first one at 48.1 MPH. well above the standard test speed.
So the tests continued until they could get the desired explosion and nothing. Eventually they used an external ignition device to ignite the fuel and get the desired explosion effect. This is the video everyone knows and remembers. The car was sent almost 30 yards from the initial contact point by the massive impact. So, in order to make it look effective, they only showed the video in ultra slow motion to give the impression the car was not hit by 4,500 lbs. , traveling at speed, but to appear it was hardly touched.
In this video a Chevy Vega is tested, however the test parameters are very different. The nose of the Caprice is not lowered, it actually appears raised so it would exactly meet the bumper of the Vega evenly, which is what bumpers at the time were designed to do. There were standards at the time. But the same effect is still achieved although not on as great a scale, once again, due to how the test was conducted. The Vega still leaked gas and the doors malfunctioned. Had the car been lowered in the front to make full contact with the gas tank like the Pinto tests, would it have ruptured more or possibly caught fire? Maybe? Most likley! The fact is the leakage occurred and apples weren't even compared to apples.
Here is a test of the Datsun B210, notice how they used a flat wall to evenly distribute the energy of the crash over the entire rear end of the car. Once again, totally different parameters used. This test is unlike any real life situation. The car was also void of gas and no video of the aftermath of the tank as in the previous videos. The undercarriage video goes offscreen while the car is still being smashed and as the gas tank compresses against the rear end. Did this tank rupture? There is actually no way the tank did not rupture, the entire rear of the car axle and all folds into a six inch space , if liquid was inside the gas tank it would not have possibly compressed without rupture as liquid doesn't compress, the pressure would have caused rupture.
Conclusion: The design of the Pinto was very much the same as all other cars of its day, with the gas tank behind the rear end, along with leaf springs, shocks, and a muffler. So a rear end impact in any sub compact of the day could result in a leakage of gas and possible fire.
Could the Pinto fire happen?
Absolutely, but the Pinto was not alone in this. It just shouldered all the blame for every manufacturer and car on the market at the time. However, unlike the Pinto, many cars of the day also had a rear gas fill nozzle which was the cause of a much higher rate of automotive fires from a rear end collision. Some of these you know as the Camaro, Mustang, Gremlin, the list is quite long..
Today all gas fill nozzles are side fill. Gas tanks were removed from the rear ends of all cars and place more mid car.
This proves no one at the time had a safer design, they just didn't want to be front page news .
So everyone simultaneously changed their designs after the Pinto story broke.
Crash testing after the Pinto tests were completed was also made more universal across the board to make for a fairer gauge of cars safety.
So the Pinto sacrifice made the world safer and the testing of cars more universal. So, lets move past the hate and enjoy these little care free cars.
The Pinto was actually a success story. With record sales of 2.4 million in just 5 years it would end its run with selling over 3.2 million in 10 years. (sales dropped by approximately half after the 1976 firestorm ) The Pinto was truly everywhere. They were inexpensive and easy to repair. They got kids to college, became many peoples first car, helped single mothers get to work, etc.
So if the Pinto was so great, why the slanderous tales of woe?
Because gas just wasn't selling like it used too! Keep in mind, most cars in the early 70's were over 4,000 lbs. and got about 8-10 miles per gallon. The Pinto was affordable and economical with over 30MPG from a carbureted motor in the early 70's. Something even great by today's standards. The mileage alone, compiled with sales in the millions sold was more than enough reason to slander the car to the point of extinction. Plus they were cheap and easy to maintain, which also affected new car sales. So in some ways, the Pinto was the first green car sold in the American market.
Changes set forth by the the Pinto story were numerous. The oil crisis that soon followed changed the desire for smaller more economical and safer cars, the Pinto led the way for the American car industry to make that change possible.
However nothing compares to the nostalgia of driving one down the road, people smile, beep and wave. There is no road rage in a Pinto. The stories at stops. Just park a Pinto and people will flock to it, not filled with hate, but smiling. They will tell stories of their first car, first love, great times spent. It is a relic to a better time, and for just a moment, the Pinto makes the world a better place, one gas station at a time!
Number of Ford Pintos built and sold from 1971-1980: 3,127,322
Not bad for a 10 year run.