40 Years After the Pinto's Debut, Remembering its Exploding Gas Tanks

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 24, 2011

Mark Dowie, the dogged investigator who broke the story of the Ford Pinto's exploding gas tanks way back in 1977, was then Mother Jones' business manager. A sobering tale, it charges that the Ford Motor Company ignored evidence that an $11 plastic tray could have prevented its cars from bursting into flames (and killing at least 27 people). It was Dowie's first big story for the magazine, published after a six-month investigation.

The Ford Pinto was vulnerable from the rear. (Flickr/Joost J. Bakker photo)
The Ford Pinto was vulnerable from the rear. (Flickr/Joost J. Bakker photo)

Dowie, whose most recent book is Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (MIT Press), found his smoking gun in a scene right out of a movie. All the Presidents' Men, perhaps? According to Dowie, Ford created a blizzard of paperwork in its lobbying effort against a federal rear-end collision standard. In an era long before digital records, his sleuthing led to a row of huge filing cabinets at the Department of Transportation, where he was told he could take his time.

It took a week going through those files for Dowie to unearth a Ford memo entitled "Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires." In it, Ford's director of auto safety estimated that equipping the Pinto with the $11 part would prevent 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries and 2,100 burned cars, for a total cost of $137 million. Paying out $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury and $700 per vehicle would cost only $49.15 million.

Later analysts have speculated that the memo isn't quite as cold-blooded as it appears, and that Ford was merely quoting existing federal data. But its existence, and Dowie's story, were enough to deep-six the Pinto and leave it with a stigma for all time. Images of rear-ended Pintos turning into fireballs, are seared on the collective memory. Here's a video of one such rear-end crash test:

The plantiffs in a lawsuit over one fatal 1972 Pinto crash case were initially awarded more than $127 million by a jury, though that amount was substantially reduced by the judge in the case. Another case resulted in a $30 million settlement. The Pinto is not remembered fondly, and it's become a symbol of auto safety compromises. Luckily, today's Fords are much better-built.

Dowie today has mellowed a bit about the Pinto, which is celebrating its 40th birthday (1971 was the first year). In fact, Dowie would rather drive a repaired Pinto than an equally infamous model, the Chevrolet Corvair (brought down by Ralph Nader). "The Pinto was actually a pretty reasonable car, except for that one flaw which you can fix with an $11 part," Dowie said. "It was a fabulous vehicle that got great gas mileage."

As we talked, Dowie surfed the Hemmings Motor News online want ads and found a Pinto that had been a Car and Driver project car. A bit steep at $24,900. An excellent 10,000-mile original, in mint green, however, was $12,500 at a dealer in San Diego. Some cheaper ones are here. Mark Dowie and the Pinto, reunited again after all these years?

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