The rear-view mirror: Ford’s other pony car — the Pinto

Ford sure likes his horses. The Ford Mustang not only created a new class of car, it remains with us to this day. And the Ford Bronco is back, achieving an iconic status that few would have predicted in the early 1990s when production ended. But there’s a third pony in that stable, and one the automaker would rather forget: the Ford Pinto.

The interior was standard, decorated with vinyl and plastic.

Introduced this week in 1970, the Pinto was created out of a desire to counter the growing number of European and Japanese subcompacts in the American market. Ford would go on to sell more than 3.3 million Pintos, but not without plenty of controversy. It was perhaps the most famous of the poorly developed cars of the 1970s that led to Detroit’s downfall with consumers.

A car is born

Ford vice president Lee Iacocca was an avid marketer and basically knew what consumers wanted. But in 1967, Volkswagen, Toyota and Datsun responded to the signal of what buyers wanted: small, economical cars. Not that Detroit hadn’t figured that out before. In 1960, the Big Three launched their first compact American cars. But as expected, these small cars grew every year to the point where they were almost as big as mid-range cars.

Foreign car manufacturers provided the solution, importing cars originally designed to fit the narrow medieval streets of European countries. But Iacocca was concerned that foreign automakers would soon capture the entire U.S. subcompact market. He decided to meet the threat head on.

Ford Motor Co. executives Lee Iacocca and Don Frey in 1964.

But Iacocca ran into other executives who disagreed, most notably Ford’s new president, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, newly recruited to Ford after a career at General Motors. Knudsen didn’t see the need for a domestically produced subcompact car. Ford was about to introduce the Maverick, its Falcon replacement.

But Iacocca persisted, insisting that a car smaller than the Maverick was needed. His point was supported by reports that other US automakers are planning to introduce subcompact cars. Henry Ford II gave Iacocca the go-ahead in January 1969.

Development begins

After approval was obtained, a group of nearly three dozen inspected the small cars for sale. The Volkswagen Beetle is seen as the main target as it was the most popular small car of the time. But others were checked, including the Fiat 850 and 124, Opel Kadett, Toyota Corolla, Vauxhall Viva and the British Ford Escort. The team found that the Opel did the best while providing the best ride. The Toyota was the quietest, while the Fiats were the most comfortable.

1971 Ford Pinto Photo: RM Sothebys

The engineers and designers were given parameters: the new car should weigh no more than 2,000 pounds and cost no more than $2,000.

When design began, Dearborn looked to Europe for engines, quickly deciding to use the Kent 4-cylinder overhead cam that debuted as a 1.0-liter unit in the 1960 Ford Anglia. By 1967, it had grown to a 1, 6 liters and is used in the Cortina GT. Brought to the States, it generates 75 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque. Ford also offers the 2.0-liter Cologne Four as an option. Manufactured by Ford of Germany, it produced 100 hp. and 120 lb-ft of torque and will be available as an option. A 4-speed manual transmission was standard; A 3-speed automatic was available with the larger engine.

A new pony is born

At 163 inches long with a 94.2-inch wheelbase, the Pinto was small in an era when cars were usually at least more than three and a half feet longer. The Lilliputian size of the car was no accident. Its rear end was shortened to save weight and money. Given its retail price, Ford had to save money whenever possible. Even the tires were cheap: 13-inch diagonals. The interior was standard, with lots of plastic and vinyl covered seats.

By 1978, Ford had fixed the Pinto’s defective fuel tanks.

All in all, it was developed in a brisk 25 months, rather than the 43 months it usually took to develop new cars at the time. Since it will take 18 months to procure tooling, design, engineering and quality assurance are running out of time.

The 1971 Ford Pinto hit the market in the fall of 1970, just as the Chevrolet Vega and AMC Gremlin arrived. Chrysler offered the Dodge Colt, made by Mitsubishi, and the Plymouth Cricket, made by Hillman of England. But Ford’s new colt proved popular, selling 352,402 units in its first year of production. Only the Falcon and Mustang sold more in their debut year.

A horse of a different color

But the shortcuts taken and the money saved to make the car profitable will soon take their toll.

In May 1972, Lillian Gray, a California housewife, burned to death when her Pinto was rear-ended by another car and caught fire. Her companion survived, but with disfiguring burns.

The Ford Pinto will go out of production after the 1980 model year.

The defect that caused the fire is known to Ford. Their own rear crash tests saw it catch fire in all 40 tests conducted at speeds above 25 mph. Even before it hit the market, the company’s crash tests showed the Pinto catching fire in 8 out of 11 tests.

This is due to the location of the gas tanks behind the rear axle, but in front of the rear bumper. Upon impact, the fuel tank neck ruptured, causing a fire. Although this layout was not unlike many small cars of the time, during development the rear of the Pinto was shortened to save money. After the defect was identified, Ford built the car anyway because the machines on the assembly line were already equipped.

Most appallingly, Ford performed a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the cost of lost lives due to the defective design and the resulting legal costs against the cost of fixing the defect. They concluded that this would cost an additional $11 per vehicle, or $113 million. But the damage payouts will only be $49 million in legal payouts, so the defect is left in place.

Although the company fixed the problem in a 1977 design update, the company ended up paying millions in damages, recalling 1.5 million cars, being charged with negligent homicide and causing untold damage to its reputation. Eventually, the foreign automakers, the ones the Pinto was supposed to beat, gained market share.

Pinto production ended in 1980.

The following year, Ford debuted its newest advertising slogan: Quality First.

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