Classic Car

Why Driving A Ford Pinto Was The Ultimate Nightmare


For any car manufacturer, safety is the number one priority for the occupants of its vehicles. When it comes to the Ford Pinto, though, safety was in somewhat short supply! The Pinto is one of the most controversial cars in Ford’s history, first appearing back in 1970. Its rather blemished safety record attracted a lot of media and government scrutiny. And the main culprit was the fuel tank and the rear-end design of the Pinto.

Despite these issues, Ford was able to make the Pinto for ten years up until 1980. Remarkably Ford produced over three million examples of the Pinto at that time, making it an infamous yet popular classic car today. Interestingly, the Pinto also outpaced its main rivals, the equally poor Chevrolet Vega and the AMC Gremlin. That safety record, though, has hung over the Pinto as a curse ever since its inception.

Ford Pinto Wanted To Take On Japanese Imports

The Pinto came about as Ford was trying to take on the onslaught of Japanese imports at the time. Cars such as the Toyota Corolla and Datsun 510 were becoming more and more popular in the 1960s. While Ford brought the impeccable Cortina over as an import from Ford of Europe, it needed a new subcompact model to take on the Japanese rivals. And that’s how the Pinto was created. Initially, it looked like Ford had created a great little car fisting it out with the Vega and the Gremlin.

Among other things, Ford was desperate to get the Pinto out into the world, so its whole development was fast-tracked. This meant the Pinto was completed in just 25 months when, at the time, the average within the automotive industry was 43 months. Ford discouraged decisions that could throw the schedule off course. Ford’s attitude was very much to get the car done as soon as possible. While they achieved this goal, it was this rush that would ultimately lead to controversies around Pinto’s safety.

The Pinto’s Terrible Safety Record Drew Controversy

Ford President Lee Lacocca was the man responsible for getting the Pinto out as quickly as possible. The car would earn the nickname “The Little Carefree Car”. But its reputation would be anything but that! Ford had decided to remove the bumpers in order to save weight. But what this did was leave the fuel t anks exposed to any collision damage, making it easy for the Pinto to puncture and erupt in flames. For the car’s occupants, the doors would likely jam shut after such an accident. Meaning escape from a burning Pinto would prove incredibly tricky.


Passengers were tragically killed in accidents with the Pinto. Lilly Gray was one, killed after her Pinto was rear-ended in 1972. Her passenger, 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw, suffered disfiguring burns. Some 27 deaths were officially attributed to the Pinto, although that unofficial figure is likely to be higher.

The NHTSA investigated the Pinto in the late 1970s. And then Ford would issue a recall in 1978 of some 1.5 million Pintos and the rebadged version of the Mercury Bobcat. At the time, this was the largest recall in automotive history. Ford also had to contend with 117 lawsuits thanks to these rear-end accidents.

Ford Dealt With A Huge Number Of Lawsuits

There were two very famous lawsuits involving Ford and the Pinto. Grimshaw Vs Ford Motor Co, referring to Lily Gray and Richard Grimshaw and Indiana Vs Ford Motor Co. The latter was following the death of three teenage girls of the Ulrich family in Osceola, Indiana. The Pinto they were in had its own rear-end collision after the driver stopped to retrieve the car’s gas tank cap. Ford won the second case, but the damage was very much done. The Ford Pinto had earned itself a horrifying reputation.

Was The Pinto Actually That Bad?

However, despite the lawsuits and the legal cases, there have been studies on the “Litter Carefree Car’s” safety since. UCLA law professor Garry T. Schwartz conducted an investigation into the fatality rates of the Pinto and other small cars of the time. While noting that rear-end fires are a very small portion of fatalities, he also found that cars of this size generally had a higher fatality risk. The Pinto represented 1.9% of fatal accidents accompanied by fire, implying that the Pinto was average for all cars and above average in its class. This was when only 1% of automobile crashes would result in a fire and only 4% of fatal ones involving fire.

The Pinto was on the same level as the rather strange AMG Gremlin, Chevrolet Vega, and Datsun 510 when it came to other accidents. It was actually safer overall than the Toyota Corolla and VW Beetle. So in some ways, the Pinto was not that bad. But the serious flaw with the rear end and its fuel tank design meant it had to go through a recall and redesign. It is those fuel tank fires that gave the otherwise cool Ford Pinto an infamous tag.


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