Cars and Controversy: The Ford Pinto Case

The early 1970’s brought about several major changes that ultimately led to a new line of cars. Competition from Japanese automobile manufacturer’s was growing, gas prices were gradually decreasing, and while awaiting the 1973 to 1974 Arab oil boycotts, demands for energy conservations were about to see a boost. With Lee Iacocca as president of Ford Motor Company, the Ford Pinto was developed. The Pinto weighed approximately 2,000 pounds and cost $2,000.

Before the introduction of the Ford Pinto to the public, crash tests indicated that the vehicle had several dangerous flaws in its design. In a rear end collision at an impact speed of 20mph or more, the gas tank was located in an area that would cause it to rupture, leading to a fire or explosion. The vehicle’s gas tank was a mere five inches from the sheet metal in the rear and three inches from the back of the rear axle housing. In the majority of the rear-end crash tests, protruding bolts punctured the tank and the axle housing became deformed. In 20mph moving barrier crashes, the crash distance on the rear end was more than eight inches.

Following the crash tests, Ford concluded that the vehicle’s rear end structure was not efficient due to various damage deformations of the gas tank, including leakage to the filler pipe. Repairs to these defects were not costly, averaging $11 per vehicle. In 1971, a confidential company memo was issued, stating that no additional safety features will be adopted for the 1973 and later vehicles until it becomes required by law.

Later, a cost-benefit analysis developed by Ford concluded that adding $11 per car to correct the flaws was not cost-efficient. Advantages derived from spending the cost per car estimated to an approximate total of $49.5 million. This amount was estimated by assuming that each death that could have been avoided would be worth $200,000, each severe burn injury that could have been avoided would be worth $67,000, and average repair costs for vehicles involved in rear end collisions would be worth $700 per vehicle. This calculation included 2,100 burned vehicles, 180 severe burn injuries, and 180 burn-related deaths. When this unit cost was spread over the number of vehicles affected by the change in design at $11 per car, the cost averaged $137 million – which was much more than the $49.5 million advantage.


  • Biography of Lido A. Iacocca: Biography of businessman Lido “Lee” Iacocca, known for engineering the Ford Pinto, Mustang, and for being fired from Ford Motor Company before moving on to the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s.
  • Ford Pinto: Information on the development of the Ford Pinto by the Ford Company, as well as a list of product objectives published by the Society of Automotive Engineers, and the cost-benefit analysis related to the Pinto.
  • Pinto Madness: An in-depth investigation of the development of the Ford Pinto and the insensitivity of the Ford Company when manufacturing the vehicle, allowing money to get in the way of creating a safe, solid vehicle for the public.
  • Ford Pinto Fuel-Fed Fires: Brief background on the recall of the Ford Pinto in 1978 from the Ford Motor Company and Center for Auto Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Knowing the Causes Behind Defective Gas Tank Lawsuits: Legal information on the laws regarding defective gas tanks in vehicles, the three different types of defects that can constitute product liability, and the outcome of the Ford Motor Company’s lawsuit associated to the Ford Pinto.
  • California Law Business – Mark Robinson and the Ford Pinto: Article discussing the lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company due to the unsafe Ford Pinto and statements from Mark Robinson stating that little has changed in the automobile industry.
  • Fatal Ford Pinto Crash in Indiana: Information about the rumors that surfaced about the Ford Motor Company after three teenage girls died after their 1973 Ford Pinto was rear ended and burst into flames on an Indiana highway in 1978.
  • Settlement Gives Him a New Life: Article about Richard Grimshaw who was 13 years old when he got into a car accident in a Ford Pinto which caught fire, leading him to suffer burns on over 90 percent of his body and collect $6.6 million-plus through a settlement with the Ford Motor Company.

Ethical Impacts

  • Ethics in Engineering: A code of ethics and ethic statements that state the importance of technologies in affecting the quality of life around the world and to accept personal responsibility to one’s profession.
  • Ethical Responsibilities of Engineers in Large Organizations: Article discussing the ethics of the Pinto Case and the moral responsibility of engineers to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

  • The Ford Pinto Case: In-depth evaluation of the Ford Pinto case and an analysis of whether the risk and benefit examination should be performed in situations where defects in design or manufacturing could ultimately lead to serious injury or death.
  • Ford Pinto Case Review: Case review of the explosion of the Ford Pinto caused by a defective fuel system design that led to the case being settled as a class action lawsuit in court.
  • Ford’s “Pinto” Memo: This web page shows figured taken from the 1973 memo written and circulated among Ford Motor Company senior management, regarding the cost-benefit analysis of the Ford Pinto.

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