A rebadged variant, the Mercury Bobcat, debuted in 1974 in Canada and in March 1975 in the US. The Pinto and the smaller, imported Ford Fiesta were ultimately replaced by the front-wheel-drive Ford Escort.
The Pinto's legacy was affected by media controversy and legal cases surrounding the safety of its gas tank design; a recall of the car in 1978; and a later study examining actual incident data that concluded the Pinto was as safe as, or safer than, other cars in its class.
U.S. automakers had first countered imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle with compact cars including the Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair and Plymouth Valiant. These cars had six-cylinder engines, but actually comprised a larger class of vehicles. As the popularity of smaller Japanese imports from Toyota and Datsun increased throughout the 1960s, Ford North America responded by introducing the Ford Cortina from Ford of Europe as a captive import. U.S. automakers would soon introduce their own subcompacts. The Pinto was in compliance with Japanese regulations concerning vehicle length and engine displacement, but exceeded width dimensions by 60 mm (2.4 in).
The Pinto was introduced on September 11, 1970. The AMC Gremlin was the first to arrive on the market six months before the Pinto, and the Chevrolet Vega was introduced the day before the Pinto. Both the Pinto and the Vega were new, but the Pinto used powertrains proven in Europe from the European Ford Escort, while the Vega's innovative aluminum engine would prove troublesome. The Gremlin was designed around a six-cylinder engine, and was derived largely by truncating the rear body from the compact-class AMC Hornet to achieve its short length.
CEO of Ford Lee Iacocca wanted a 1971 model that weighed less than 2,000 pounds and that would be priced at less than $2,000. A team of stylists at Ford was assigned to design the Pinto's exterior and interior instead of using the European Ford Escort. Robert Eidschun's design of the exterior theme was eventually chosen in its entirety. The clay models of the Pinto were finalized in December 1968 after which Eidschun left Ford to join Chrysler, as a studio Design Manager.
Ford North America's decision to create an all-new vehicle instead of integrating a design from international corporate resources paralleled GM North America's approach when creating the Chevrolet Vega — opting not to use the established Vauxhall Viva/Opel Kadett marketed at the time at GM dealerships in Canada, and USA Buick dealerships from 1967. Designers working on products intended for North America had more freedom with exterior dimensions and engine sizes in relation to Japanese counterparts, where those criteria were dictated by Japanese government regulations. Typically, Detroit manufacturers created products that emulated import aspects with market-driven improvements.
While the previously introduced Ford Maverick offered either straight-6 or V8 engine and twin bench seats, the Pinto offered an inline-4 engine, and bucket seats – more in keeping with small imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle, available since 1949, the Toyota Corolla, introduced to North America March 1968, and the newly introduced Datsun 1200 which appeared in 1970.
Compared with imports, seating was low to the floor. Styling somewhat resembled the larger Ford Maverick in grille and tail light themes, but with a fastback profile.
Ford introduced the Pinto under the tagline The Little Carefree Car, and made the first retail delivery in North America to Charles J. Pinto of Pinto, Maryland, in a record 25 months from concept to production. On hand to deliver the Pinto was Arthur Kowell, president of Kowell Ford Inc., according to the Cumberland Times-News of Sept. 13, 1970.
The Pinto was introduced as a two-door sedan, after structural work on alternate body styles encountered obstacles. Entry level Pintos were priced on launch at around $1850, making the Pinto the least expensive Ford since the "Six" of 1958, undercutting GM's Chevrolet Vega and directly targeting imported models — which continued to add competitors such as the Mazda 1200 in 1971, the Subaru DL in 1972, and the Honda Civic in 1973.
Pintos were manufactured in St. Thomas, Ontario; Edison, New Jersey; and in Richmond, California. The Pinto would be later complemented by the German built, smaller front-wheel-drive Ford Fiesta, and formally replaced by the Escort for the 1981 model year.
A hatchback became available on February 20, 1971, debuting at the Chicago Auto Show (also, in 1971, the Pinto brochure came with a paper cutout Pinto that one could fold together to make a 3D model). The Runabout went on sale five days later, priced at $2,062. The hatch itself featured exposed chrome hinges for the liftgate and five decorative chrome strips, pneumatic struts to assist in opening the hatch, a rear window approximately as large as the sedan's, and a fold down seat — a feature which became simultaneously an option on the sedan. The hatchback model matched the sedan in all other dimensions and offered 38.1 cubic feet (1.08 m3) of storage space. By 1972, the glass portion of the hatch enlarged to the entire size of the hatch itself, ultimately to be replaced with a full glass rear hatch.
On February 24, 1972, the Pinto station wagon debuted with an overall length of 172.7 in (4,390 mm) and 60.5 cubic feet (1.71 m3) of cargo volume. The wagon offered optional flip-open rear-seat windows, the 2.0-liter engine was standard equipment along with front disc brakes.
The Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon was marketed from 1977 to 1980 and styled to resemble a small conversion van or sedan delivery, complete with a round side panel "bubble windows". A Pinto Squire wagon featured faux wood side paneling similar to the Ford Country Squire. Ford offered appearance packages but not a factory performance package similar to the Cosworth Vega or the 304 V8 Gremlin X.
The car's mechanical design was conventional, with unibody construction, a longitudinally mounted engine in front driving the rear wheels through either a manual or automatic transmission and live axle rear end. Suspension was by unequal length control arms with coil springs at the front and the live axle rear was suspended on leaf springs. The rack and pinion steering had optional power assist, as did the brakes.
Except for 1973 and 1980, the Pinto was available with a choice of two engines. For the first five years of production, only four-cylinder inline engines were offered. Ford changed the power ratings almost every year.
Of particular note is the introduction in 1974 of the 2.3 litres (140 cu in) OHC I4 engine. This engine would be updated and modified several times, allowing it to remain in production into 1997. Among other Ford vehicles, a turbocharged version of this engine would later power the performance based Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, Mustang SVO, and the European-built Merkur XR4Ti.
Initial Pinto deliveries in the early years used the English (1,600 cc (98 cu in)) and German (2,000 cc (120 cu in)) engines tuned for performance (see below). The 2,000 cc engine used a two barrel carburetor where just one bore was bigger than that used on the Maverick. With the low weight (not much above 2,000 lb (910 kg)) and the SOHC engine it rated a 10.8 second 0-60 time. With the advent of emission control requirements, Ford moved from the European sourced to domestically sourced engines, using new or modified designs. New safety legislation impacted bumpers and other parts adding to the weight of the car, reducing performance.
Revised SAE standards in 1972 dropped the Pinto's 1.6 l (98 cu in) engine to 54 bhp (40 kW) — and the 2.0 l (120 cu in) engine to 86 hp (64 kW).
- 1.6 L (98 CID) Kent OHV I4 - 75 hp (56 kW) and 96 lbf·ft (130 N·m)
- 2.0 L (122 CID) EAO SOHC I4 - 100 hp (75 kW)
- 1.6 L Kent - 54 hp (40 kW)
- 2.0 L EAO - 86 hp (64 kW)
- 2.0 L EAO - 86 hp (64 kW)
- 2.0 L EAO - 86 hp (64 kW)
- 2.3 L (140 CID) OHC - 90 hp (67 kW)
- 2.3 L OHC - 83 hp (62 kW)
- 2.8 L (170 CID) Cologne V6 - 97 hp (72 kW)
- 2.3 L OHC - 92 hp (69 kW) and 121 lbf·ft (164 N·m)
- 2.8 L Cologne - 103 hp (77 kW) and 149 lbf·ft (202 N·m)
- 2.3 L OHC - 89 hp (66 kW) and 120 lbf·ft (160 N·m)
- 2.8 L Cologne - 93 hp (69 kW) and 140 lbf·ft (190 N·m)
- 2.3 L OHC - 88 hp (66 kW) and 118 lbf·ft (160 N·m)
- 2.8 L Cologne - 90 hp (67 kW) and 143 lbf·ft (194 N·m)
- 2.3 L OHC - 88 hp (66 kW) and 118 lbf·ft (160 N·m)
- 2.8 L Cologne - 102 hp (76 kW) and 138 lbf·ft (187 N·m)
- 2.3 L OHC - 88 hp (66 kW) and 119 lbf·ft (161 N·m)
Reception and criticism
Road & Track faulted the suspension and standard drum brakes, calling the latter a "serious deficiency," but praised the proven 1.6 L Kent engine, adapted from European Fords. The larger 2300 inline-4 found in the Chevrolet Vega was an innovative, brand new design using an aluminum alloy block and iron head, but needed more development work as initially released. Consumer Reports rated the 1971 Pinto below the Vega but above the Gremlin.
In 2004, Forbes named the Pinto in its list of Worst Cars of All Time.
Citing the Pinto's alleged engineering and safety problems, Time magazine and Dan Neil named the Pinto in their 2008 list of the Fifty Worst Cars of All Time.
In 2009, Business Week named the Pinto in their list of the Ugliest Cars of the Past 50 Years.
Fuel tank controversy
Controversy followed the Pinto after 1977 allegations that the Pinto's structural design allowed its fuel tank filler neck to break off and the fuel tank to be punctured in a rear-end collision, resulting in deadly fires from spilled fuel.
Allegations and lawsuits
Critics alleged that the vehicle's lack of reinforcing structure between the rear panel and the tank meant the tank would be pushed forward and punctured by the protruding bolts of the differential — making the car less safe than its contemporaries.
According to a 1977 Mother Jones article by Mark Dowie, Ford allegedly was aware of the design flaw, refused to pay for a redesign, and decided it would be cheaper to pay off possible lawsuits for resulting deaths. The magazine obtained a cost-benefit analysis that it said Ford had used to compare the cost of an $11 repair against the monetary value of a human life—what became known as the Ford Pinto Memo. This document was, technically, not a memo regarding the Pinto specifically, but a general memo Ford submitted to the NHTSA in an effort to gain an exemption from safety standards; it was also primarily focused on the cost of reducing deaths from fires resulting from rollovers, rather than the rear-end collision fires that plagued the Pinto. It was nonetheless submitted in court in an effort to show the "callousness" of Ford's corporate culture.
An example of a Pinto rear-end accident that led to a lawsuit was the 1972 accident that killed Lilly Gray and severely burned 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw. The accident resulted in the court case Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., in which the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District upheld compensatory damages of $2.5 million and punitive damages of $3.5 million against Ford, partially because Ford had been aware of the design defects before production but had decided against changing the design.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ultimately directed Ford to recall the Pinto. Initially, the NHTSA did not feel there was sufficient evidence to demand a recall due to incidents of fire. 27 deaths were attributed to Pinto fires (the same number of deaths attributed to a Pinto transmission problem) and in 1974 the NHTSA ruled that the Pinto had no "recallable" problem.
In 1978, Ford initiated a recall providing a plastic protective shield to be dealer-installed between the fuel tank and the differential bolts, another to deflect contact with the right-rear shock absorber, and a new fuel-tank filler neck that extended deeper into the tank and was more resistant to breaking off in a rear-end collision.
In a 1991 paper, The Myth of the Ford Pinto Case, for the Rutgers Law Review, Gary T. Schwartz said the case against the Pinto was not clear-cut.
According to his study, the number who died in Pinto rear-impact fires was well below the hundreds cited in contemporary news reports and closer to the 27 recorded by a limited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database. Given the Pinto's production figures (over 2 million built), this was not substantially worse than typical for the time. Schwartz said that the car was no more fire-prone than other cars of the time, that its fatality rates were lower than comparably sized imported automobiles, and that the supposed "smoking gun" document that plaintiffs said demonstrated Ford's callousness in designing the Pinto was actually a document based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations about the value of a human life — rather than a document containing an assessment of Ford's potential tort liability.
Schwartz's study said:
- The Pinto Memo wasn't used or consulted internally by Ford, but rather was attached to a letter written to NHTSA about proposed regulation. When plaintiffs tried to use the memo in support of punitive damages, the trial judge ruled it inadmissible for that purpose (p. 1021, Schwartz study).
- The Pinto's fuel tank location behind the axle, ostensibly its design defect, was "commonplace at the time in American cars" (p. 1027).
- The precedent of the California Supreme Court at the time not only tolerated manufacturers trading off safety for cost, but apparently encouraged manufacturers to consider such trade-offs (p. 1037).
The comedy film Top Secret! features a scene where a group of soldiers in a runaway vehicle manage to stop the car just before it can hit a Pinto. However, the car just barely taps the rear bumper of the Pinto, causing the car to explode.
The Pinto was entered in the Trans Am Series durning the 1972 season. After suffering several problems throughout the season, and finishing only one race, it was withdrawn from the series. The Pinto had also been entered in one race in the 1971 season.