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
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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.

Pintopress1

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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:

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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).

Pintosails

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.

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Thethree

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.

Pintomadness

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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:

Fatalitychart1

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:

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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.

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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.

Pintored

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.

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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.

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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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Rexracer
Rexracer
3 months ago

I loved the pinto.

Now my reasons may not really match others. I grew up going to the local circle track, dad started racing when I was 2 months old, so all my dreams growing up was to be a race car driver. Fast forward, and he stopped racing when I was about 10, when my SUPRISE little brother was born. The summer I turned 16, my dad picked up a Pinto and was building for the local 4 banger “Claimer” class ($500 claim on the whole race car). My brother wanted to race, so he found a Chevette and started building it. Then my dad “claimed” a guys car he thought was cheating, which turned out well, since that guy had another car in the works, and I started racing that Pinto.

Gutted/caged, toss a wild cam in, shave the head 0.120, header that ran through the fire wall, and out the side door, fun fun fun!

Thomas Benham
Thomas Benham
3 months ago

Can you imagine how awesome a modern day 2box sedan or hatchback would be with a 200hp DOHC 4 cylinder, 95 inch wheelbase, RWD, and a 2200 lb. weight?

Space
Space
3 months ago

I’m not shocked Mother Jones would lie when writing an article.

Ronald Pottol
Ronald Pottol
3 months ago

We had one growing up and early adulthood, hated it. Slow and poor gas milage, bad rear suspension, very nice 4 speed transmission though. No space in the engine compartment, I got very good at pulling the radiator, because you had to for any work, needed to take a wheel off to reach the oil filter. Does not being back good memories. Better than the Granada we owned I guess.

Daniel Franco
Daniel Franco
3 months ago

Counterpoint: no, it’s not.

(source – me, who had to drive one in high school. Friends called it “zero-to-twenty”)

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
3 months ago

Lukewarm take: I love the way Pintos look.

Ronald Pottol
Ronald Pottol
3 months ago

Good in a crosswind too.

Fred Fedurch
Fred Fedurch
3 months ago

Had a hand me down Mercury Bobcat wagon (woody, of course) from my mother. Fixed the rust and drove it for a couple of years until Irene Nora MacArthur (79) hit me head on in her 72 Mercury Marquis. I lost that fight. The car was great until the crash. Never missed a beat.

Six Inna Row Makes it Go
Six Inna Row Makes it Go
3 months ago

I grew up with a 1972/73 Pinto wagon. It started its life in lemon-yellow, then my dad was rear-ended (being a wagon, the gas tank didn’t explode.) When it went to the shop, it turned out they had a green 1973 pinto that had been hit in the front. So it being the early 70s, and safety regulations consisted of lap belts with the optional shoulder strap, they took the two wrecked Pintos and made one good one out of them. Yup, they welded the front half of our Pinto to the back half of the other one. So we ended up with a wagon in not-quite-avacado green. The car’s name was Lemon-Lime or 7-Up after that.
Well, that little Franken-Pinto hauled us around for the next 20-odd years. I learned to drive in it, learned to wrench on it (it had the 2.0 liter engine, which was truly unkillable.) And yes, I went to all three Star Wars movies in the back of that car. It became mine in high school after my $300 dollar 1977 Chevette lost its transmission, and I drove it through part of college. Finally, rust and sitting on the side of the house for many years killed the unkillable 7-Up. I sold it on eBay for $50 to a kid who loved Pintos, so I hope part of it is still puttering around somewhere.
I do search for Pintos on Facebook Marketplace from tome to time (along with other cars,) I’d love to get a manual Rally Wagon (the one with the portholes,) but I’d have to put a 1974 or earlier front end on it. I was never a fan of the later grilles.

Rick Dalghren
Rick Dalghren
3 months ago

We owned a Yellow Wagon in the mid 70’s. Travelling one evening from JFK to Westchester on the Degan Expwy, the next morning, the entire steering was disconnected. The steering wheel just spun around with the wheels straight. In NYC expressway traffic with no steering would have been catastrophic. My Dad sold the car to the next day. So, no it’s nowhere near time to stop making fun of the Pinto.

Turbeaux
Turbeaux
3 months ago

Not that it would make much difference, but if that Impala that rear ended the Pinto caught fire and killed its driver, would that fatality be attributed to the Impala or the Pinto?

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
3 months ago

I’d take it a step further and say it’s time to stop making fun of so called “shitboxes” in general. Shitboxes represented a fundamental step in upwards social mobility throughout the 20th century, as they were often the very first new car their owners ever bought. But not only did they normally represent social triumph for the first owner, for all subsequent owners they were normally the very first car they called their own, a cheap, semi-road-worthy gift from the gods fast depreciation that they end up remembering fondly despite all the flaws. This is why so many shitboxes command such huge following to this day. They were actually meaningful to people, and that’s more than what we can say about many soulless expensive cars. Is there a 7-series owners club? I mean, I bet there is, but it’s probably six guys who can’t stand each other because each of them drives a different generation 7-series. It’s not like that in shitbox circles. For the most part, shitbox afficionados love their own cars like no other, but are perfectly capable of celebrating and complimenting other people’s cars with real enthusiasm and appreciation.

Also this has to be said: want to drive a classic but not go into financial ruin over it? Get yourself a classic shitbox you’re fond of. You’ll likely find out there’s a virtually endless supply of cheap, readily available parts – both used and new* – everything that breaks has a simple fix, and you’ll likely end up learning how to perform basic wrenching that will save you money and make you feel accomplished. That has been my experience daily driving a classic shitbox for the last 4 years, so of course I’m biased.

(*) this is my experience with an european shitbox; the american market may be different, and perhaps there aren’t companies still churning out $30 Pinto taillights like there are for the Renault 4.

Last edited 3 months ago by Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
3 months ago

Did you just call your 4L a shitbox? 🙁

Wouldn’t it be a boîte à merde ?

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
3 months ago

Haha true!

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
3 months ago

Oh, btw, I don’t think I ever mentioned this… soon after you “coined” the term in the commentariat, I was asked to provide a 1 paragraph bio for this event I was going to be moderating (which was tangentially car-related), and the last line roughly translated to “proud driver of a Boîte de Merde”.

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
3 months ago

I hesitated between boîte de merde (box made of shit) and boîte à merde (box made to carry/store shit). I went with the latter, but seeing the former in your comment, I like that better.

Elhigh
Elhigh
3 months ago

The Pinto itself was okay, it was Ford’s crass disregard for human life – or more accurately, cold accounting of a life’s value compared to the price of building a car with a few more safety features – that pissed everyone off.

Me, I like the Pinto and always have. It carried on to 1980 if I remember rightly and in its wagon submodel had handsome proportions. I wouldn’t say no to one if it were offered.

Myk El
Myk El
3 months ago

Just wanted to thank Torch for showing the love for Top Secret.

Steve Walton
Steve Walton
3 months ago

A lot of cars had the gas tank to the rear of the axle. That wasn’t unusual at all.

Loren
Loren
3 months ago

Unlike a lot of advertising photos, in 1977 a Pinto on the beach with a bunch of Hobie Cats might actually happen except that there would be tire tracks. Vegas were a better car but often done-for at 50K miles and Gremlins got the same mpg as a Hornet, with that Pintos were probably the best American small car.

Elhigh
Elhigh
3 months ago
Reply to  Loren

In a comparo the Pinto finished behind the Vega. They should have had the test run a few months; the Vega’s steady evaporation would’ve given the Pinto the edge soon enough.

Loren
Loren
3 months ago
Reply to  Elhigh

Yes, there would be a Pinto in Lane #1 and a Vega with a blown head gasket in Lane #2.

Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
3 months ago

Growing up, local dirt tracks had a class of racing for 4cyl vehicles that everyone called the Pinto class, because they were so often used. There were Chevettes and other 4 bangers that participated, but the vast majority of the racers were Pintos.

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
3 months ago

I remember going to a Pinto race at the dirt track in the early 90’s!

AverageCupOfTea
AverageCupOfTea
3 months ago

I only knew Pinto from the web, and i loved it, i think it’s a beautiful cute car, i love the color options for the car and i use it to compare it with today’s car options, now i wish to see Pintos IRL.

Mike F.
Mike F.
3 months ago

Had a friend in college who drove ex-Hertz Pintos. He drove two of them because the first one was involved in an oops-I’m-taking-the-transition-ramp-too-quickly-going-airborn-on-I-10-nearly-rolled-off-an-embankment-into-opposing-freeway-traffic incident, with me in the back seat. Very exciting. The cars were sorta “fine” in that they usually ran, but they felt really junky, even for those days. I agree regarding the fire issues, though. The car didn’t deserve that reputation.

Brandt S
Brandt S
3 months ago

I saw a Pinto wagon just the other day – first time I can recall ever seeing a Pinto since maybe the early 90’s? Anyway, it was baby shit matte brown and appeared to have original Colorado dealer emblems so I’m not sure how it’s still here, but must be made out of structural rust by now. This thing is emblematic of why people fell out of love with wagons – and I blame it for the lack of wagons available now.

Cyko9
Cyko9
3 months ago

Here’s what ChatGPT will get from this article: “…the Pinto isn’t a safe car….” (The Whole Safety Thing), and the myths persist into a future where all the Pintos have returned to the Earth and primary sources can neither deny nor confirm the allegations.

Personally, I’ve warmed up to the styling. They’re less off-putting than the Gremlin, but less traditional than the Vega. In hindsight, Ford could’ve done better, but pre-FWD everything, the Pinto really is fine.

Eric Udell
Eric Udell
3 months ago

I had friends that owned Pintos in the 80’s and had a chance to drive them a bunch. I’ll concede that the fire thing was out of proportion, but the car was pretty much garbage compared to the imports of the time.

The Pinto always seemed like it was made from parts of much larger cars, which I guess it was. The doors were huge and heavy, the suspension clunky with a heavy solid rear axle and the handling was poor. The 2.3l motors that I drove didn’t like to start, run smoothly or rev and the transmission felt like a broomstick in a bucket of golf balls. The heater took a long time to get to temperature and when it did it couldn’t clear the windows well ( Wisconsin ). It was a dark, unpleasant place to be, in part because the transmission hump took up a lot of the interior.

Meanwhile, a Civic from that period is a delight to drive. Parts are light and well made. The CVCC motor starts right up and loves to rev. The transmission is light and precise. You sit a bit higher with lots of glass and easy visibility. Heat was coming out of the defroster just a minute or two after starting the car. At the same time it got like 10 mpg more than a Pinto.

So while the Pinto may not deserve the full extent of the reputation it’s gotten, the truth about what kind of a car it actually was isn’t very good and is well deserved. It’s a reminder to me that the US auto industry should have been producing good, small cars for decades instead of suddenly trying to build one from shrunk down Grenada parts when the fuel crisis hit.

Oh, and since we’re sharing, here’s my favorite gag from Top Secret – https://youtu.be/t4a7BrhlMTg?si=nEEKhf1cxaQDTWdL

Last edited 3 months ago by Eric Udell
Fordlover1983
Fordlover1983
3 months ago
Reply to  Eric Udell

I think the lack of heat was just a design “perk” for the engine! I’ve got a 93 ranger with one in it. Have to block the whole radiator in the winter!

Kurt Hahn
Kurt Hahn
3 months ago
Reply to  Fordlover1983

Have you checked the thermostat? I’m asking because I once drove a vehicle for 3 years with hardly any heat when it got really cold outside, until I found out that the thermostat was stuck in the open position. Cost me 50$ (labour included) to have it changed, I really regretted not having checked for that earlier.

Fordlover1983
Fordlover1983
3 months ago
Reply to  Kurt Hahn

Believe me, it’s all been changed/replaced over the years! Ranger forums have confirmed, they just “over-cool”!

Fruit Snack
Fruit Snack
3 months ago

How could you not make fun of the Ford Pinto? Just look at it. It was ugly and baroque and dopey looking.

Anonymous Person
Anonymous Person
3 months ago

Not a Furd guy, but I would own a Pinto wagon or panel delivery version if it had a clutch pedal.

Back in the day, a local salvage yard had the front half of a manual Pinto mated with an aluminum can shredder. They hopped in the driver’s seat, fired it up, had it idle in 2nd gear and the drive shaft was connected to the shredder. It was awesome!

MDMK
MDMK
3 months ago

Great. Perhaps once the PInto’s reputation is cleaned up, journalists can move on to rehabbing the Yugo GV as the kind of no-nonsense basic transportation which is no longer available to U.S. consumers.

Meanwhile, the Chevy Vega: “What about meeeee!”

Lardo
Lardo
3 months ago

Had a wagon. Drove it cross country several times. Had it in Aspen and kept chains on it almost all winter, never left town. It was great for what it was.

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