Home » It’s Long Past Time To Stop Making Fun Of The Ford Pinto

It’s Long Past Time To Stop Making Fun Of The Ford Pinto

Pinto Top

Cars, like people, have reputations. Often these reputations are earned, but this isn’t always the case. A reputation can really stick with you, to the point where it becomes so associated with you that the circumstances of its origins, whether valid or not, cease to become relevant. You’re just stuck with whatever stupid crap you got saddled with. In the automotive world, it’s hard to think of a car more laden with a terrible reputation than the Ford Pinto. Even people who don’t give a brace of BMs about cars have heard about how if you tap a Pinto on the rear, it’ll explode into a fireball the size of a small sun, and almost as hot. The truth, though, is not so simple. The Pinto really wasn’t any more dangerous than any other small ’70s-era shitbox, and so many of the other surrounding myths just don’t hold up to scrutiny. Plus, it had a fantastic engine that went on to power a lot of other interesting cars. So let’s just take a moment and offer the much-maligned Pinto some redemption.


Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

In case you’re skeptical about the remarkable ubiquity of the Pinto’s deathtrap reputation, here’s a fun example: Back in 1984, the Pinto was such a well-known joke that a tap-the-Pinto-on-the-rear-and-it’ll-explode joke was included in the 1984 Val Kilmer movie Top Secret:

If something is well-known enough to be in a mass-market screwball Val Kilmer-helmed comedy, I think it’s safe to say it’s pretty well-known. Note how they even linger on the “Pinto” badging there, so everybody gets it. Oh, and since we’re talking about Top Secret I need to show you my favorite gag from the movie, just because:


Ah, that’s a great gag! He has the forgot-about-the-class-in-high-school anxiety dream and is relieved to just being tortured by Nazis when he wakes up! Gold!

But let’s get back to the Pinto. The original goal was for Ford to have an inexpensive, fuel-efficient car to compete with imported cars like the Volkswagen Beetle. Pinto development started in 1967, and was approved in 1969; the Beetle’s biggest sales year in America was 1968, with over 400,000 sold, so it’s pretty easy to understand why Ford saw the small, inexpensive car market as something worth pursuing. Lee Iacocca, who was president of Ford at the time, famously wanted the car to be both under 2,000 pounds in weight and cost under $2,000 (those were 1971 dollars, so that’d be about $15,000 today).


The Pinto had a very rapid development, and was really quite a conventional car, just scaled down a bit. It used a four-cylinder inline engine, laid out longitudinally and driving the rear wheels. Design was clean and attractive, with a fastback that could be either a trunk or an actual hatchback. A wagon was available later as well. Really, for the early 1970s, it was fine, and compared pretty well with its domestic competition, cars like the Chevy Vega and AMC Gremlin.



Pintos initially used the 75 horsepower 1.6-liter Kent engine borrowed from Ford UK, and then an engine just for the Pinto, complete with an overhead cam, was developed, at 2- and then 2.3-liter sizes. We’ll get to this engine more in a bit.

The main point I want to make here is that in terms of fundamental design, there was really nothing wrong with the Pinto. It was very conventional, and, when compared with cars like the Vega or Gremlin, I think you could easily argue that it was the best of the bunch of American subcompacts. Remember, the Vega was a disaster that would rust if you looked at it while thinking of the ocean, and the Gremlin was just a cut-down AMC Hornet, a desperate attempt by AMC to get a small car to market while spending the least amount of money possible. Maybe it was a bit of a shitbox, but at this time in the early ’70s, that was pretty much what the state-of-the-art was. Shitboxes.

The Whole Safety Thing

Of course, the biggest Pinto issue is the notion that its poor fuel tank design, located aft of the rear axle, made it a deathtrap. According to conventional wisdom, Ford cheaped out, and instead of using a saddle-type tank over the rear axle (which would have impacted luggage capacity, something that is important for a car like this, and, really, most cars) or adding plastic baffles or steel protection plates (which could have made the setup safer), Ford calculated that it would just be cheaper and easier to accept the possibility of deaths, and built the car with the less expensive setup.



This mode of thinking was revealed to the public, with a great deal of drama, in a Pulitzer-winning article in Mother Jones called Pinto Madness This article made a lot of claims about the dangers of the Pinto’s fuel tank design, noting the highly-publicized deaths that definitely did happen as a result of a wreck that caused a fire, but also noting a much higher number of deaths from Pinto fuel tank fires:

“By conservative estimates Pinto crashes have caused 500 burn deaths to people who would not have been seriously injured if the car had not burst into flames. The figure could be as high as 900.”

Here’s the problem, though. If we look at actual numbers of fatalities per million vehicles (from all kinds of wrecks and incidents) as recorded by NHTSA from 1975-1976, we see that the numbers of fatalities for the Pinto are not anywhere near those numbers, and, in fact, the Pinto is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to small cars sold in America:


I’m getting these figures via Dr. Mark Rossow’s paper Ethics: An Alternative Account of the Ford Pinto Case which makes a number of excellent arguments that confront the usual narrative around the Pinto and especially the Mother Jones article. In the numbers above, the Pinto is hardly a standout deathtrap; I mean, by modern standards, sure, everything on that list is a horrible deathtrap, but the Pinto was safer than the Toyota Corolla or the Beetle or the Datsun 210, and none of those cars are as burdened with the oppressive fiery deathtrap narrative as the Pinto is. In fact, the Pinto’s overall deaths per million vehicles is better than the average!

The paper notes in more detail the actual reported figures and the numbers given in the Mother Jones article:


The data do not support the characterization of the Pinto as a firetrap, a death-trap, or a lethal car. Critics of Pinto safety usually refer to fatalities caused by fires in rear-end collisions, rather than fatalities from all causes. A frequently cited finding is that for the time period 1971-1977, NHTSA identified thirty-eight rear-end collisions for Pintos that resulted in tank leakage or fire [23]. These collisions led to twenty-seven deaths (the same number of deaths allegedly caused by a Pinto transmission problem—for which no recall was issued [24]). Arguments exist for saying that the figure of twenty-seven is somewhat uncertain, [1, p. 1030] but what is certain is that the figure is nowhere near the 500 burn deaths claimed in the Mother Jones article.

None of this is to say that the Pinto was perfect; it was flawed in many ways, like all cars are, especially of that era. And yes, if you whack one in the rear hard enough, you can get fuel to spill, and that fuel can catch fire. Like a lot of cars. The publicity around the Pinto encouraged more crash testing, but even the circumstances of those tests feels like there was a specific dramatically bad outcome that, for some reason, people wanted to see.

Consider the circumstances of the NHTSA rear-impact tests, again from Rossow’s paper:

Rather than a flat moving barrier, a large and especially rigid car (a 1971 Chevrolet Impala) was selected to crash into the (stationary) test-car’s rear end. To ensure good contact with the gas tank, the nose of the Impala was loaded with weights so that it would slide under the test car. To provide an ignition source for a fire, the headlights of the impacting car and brake lights of the stationary car were left on, and the engines of both the moving and stationary vehicles were warmed up and running; tanks in both the moving and test cars were filled with gasoline rather than the nonflammable mineral spirits usually used in crash tests [3; 6, p. 88].

As you can imagine, the visuals from these tests were quite dramatic, with all of that extra nose weight and factors designed to make ignition more likely:

I mean, damn, that’s terrifying! If you set up a Gremlin in these exact same circumstances, though, what do you think would happen? I’d speculate that you could get results that looked almost just like these.


And that famous “Pinto Memo,” that was supposed to be this damning indictment of Ford placing a monetary value on human life, doing the math, and deciding that making the car safer wasn’t worth it – really wasn’t that. You can read the whole memo here, and if you do, you’ll notice a few things: first, it never mentions the Pinto at all, second, it’s talking about rollover wrecks, not the rear-impact collisions at the heart of the Pinto controversy, and last, what is really going on in the memo is a cost-benefit analysis. They’re not putting a price on a human life, they’re doing what any company that makes a product has to do, evaluate desired factors with relation to cost.


If cost were no object, we could build every car with all the safety features of an F1 car. But we can’t do that, because then all cars would cost millions of dollars and, let’s be honest, nobody wants to strap into a five-point harness or wear a HANS device to go get tacos. Every automaker has to decide which safety features to include and which to leave out, and the decision could have implications on human lives.

My point here is that while by modern standards, the Pinto isn’t a safe car, for its time and class, it was really about average, and the people at Ford weren’t some unusually horrific ghouls who sold out human lives for profits – they were exactly the same sort of horrific ghouls who craved profit just like everyone else in the auto industry.

The Engine

2 3engineHere’s another big reason why it’s time to stop looking down on the Pinto: The engine created for it proved to be excellent, and found a whole other life powering all sorts of other cars, even genuinely exciting cars, long after the Pinto was gone. The overhead cam 2.3-liter inline-four engine that came to be known as the Pinto engine was at the heart of cars as varied as the Ford Aerostar van, pickup trucks like the Ford Courier and Ranger, Ford-built Brazilian Jeep CJ-5s, the midsize Ford Fairmont, LTD, Mercury Marquis, and, in turbo form, legendary performance cars like the Merkur XR4Ti, the Thunderbird Turbo, and the Mustang SVO.


That’s all pretty incredible for an engine designed for a small economy car! The robust 2.3 engine proved surprisingly flexible and able to put out significant power, culminating, in intercooled form in the Mustang SVO, with 205 hp back in 1985. That’s no joke! [Ed Note: Pinto engine swaps into Willys Jeeps are common! -DT]. 

This Cut-Out Pinto Brochure And Those Kits

Pinto Cutout

Another fun Pinto thing? These early cut-out Pinto model brochures. Look how you could option it out with a vinyl top or other wheels or “rallye” grilles and back panels – it’s like an online car configurator of today, but physical! Also, they had an admirable DIY focus for maintenance, with a number of “do-it-yourself parts kits” (see lower left column) where you’d buy like a “taillight kit” that had all the bulbs you’d need or an “electrical tune up kit” or a “windshield wiper kit” that all had the necessary parts required to do a job. Honestly, it’s a good idea that could make a comeback.

The Point

I’m by no means the first to point this out or say it or feel it, but I am happy to reiterate this idea: the Ford Pinto was not nearly as bad or deadly as its shockingly persistent reputation would make you think. It just wasn’t. There’s plenty of shitty cars out there in the world, but I’m not even sure I’d put the Pinto on such a list: it looked pretty good, it was affordable, it had a great engine, and, overall, it did the job it was designed to do.

Things got very much off the rails in the Pinto’s decade-long lifespan, but even with all of that looming mess, over three million were sold. It’s just not the horrorshow that so many people still make it out to be, and I’m just sick of hearing it. The Pinto is fine! It’s no worse than so many other cars of its era, and in fact is better than many that manage to slide under the radar of public disdain.


It’s time to stop making the same tired jokes about the Pinto. The car has earned some peace in its afterlife, and I intend to defend it.

Even at the risk of being, um, flamed.



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Hondaimpbmw 12
Hondaimpbmw 12
2 months ago

The Pinto was not alone in its gas tank placement. (The top of the tank formed the floor of the trunk with the filler tube curving from the back panel and pushed into a rubber grommet at the back of the trunk.). The first gen (and probably 2nd gen) Mustangs, Falcon/Comet (through 74) had a similar arrangement. Never heard much about those.

GM A, G & B bodies (through 96) had a big, flat gas tank between the frame rails under the trunk floors/ the gas filler terminating above the rear bumper. I think the filler neck was welded to the tank, so not as prone to spraying fuel around in case of a love tap on the rear.

13 days ago
Reply to  Hondaimpbmw 12

Yeah, all cars have with flange-mounted fuel tanks including the Mustang, Fairlane, Falcon and many others were prone to cause fiery death in rear-end collisions. There is no bulkhead between the passenger compartment and the trunk where the top of the tank is the floor of the trunk.

I was in a rollover accident in my 1968 Mustang where the car slid upside down and hit a guardrail with the rear end. It split the tank open and a wave of fuel soaked me and the driver head to toe in gasoline. It’s a miracle we didn’t burn to death.

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