Ford Pinto’s Real Legacy: Suffering and Death

This month, fans of the infamous Ford Pinto will gather to celebrate the car’s 45th anniversary at an annual event called the Pinto Stampede in Carlisle, PA. It’s a time for enthusiasts to share stories and bond over their love for Ford’s budget-friendly subcompact.

The Pinto, like all American cars, has a special place in American society. We naturally romanticize the nostalgia of our first car and our first taste of freedom. But as we look to the past through rose-tinted glasses, it’s important that we don’t let them obscure the truth.

So before we pop the champagne to toast the Pinto, we should take a sober look back at the true cost of Ford’s most shameful venture. The real legacy of the Ford Pinto is suffering and death. It is the ultimate cautionary tale of corporate greed. And so, to celebrate the Pinto is to celebrate human suffering.

The Ford Pinto is perhaps the most dangerous car ever created. A series of design defects caused the car to burst into flames in low-speed collisions. But disturbingly, the defects engineered into the Pinto were no accident. In Ford’s quest to make a lighter, cheaper car, the corporation deliberately cut safety corners.

In 1973, Ford’s engineers created a cost-benefit analysis outlined in what has come to be known as the “let them burn memo.” The memo outlined the actual mathematical calculation used by the company to weigh the cost of human life against the cost of implementing safety design in the car. It showed the company knew its actions would result in burns and deaths. Yet Ford triumphantly rolled out the Pinto anyway as, “The Little Carefree Car.”

There was nothing carefree about the victims of Pinto explosions and fires. The burn injuries are horrific. Those victims who weren’t killed were condemned to a life sentence of suffering.

In 1978, I had the honor to represent victim Richard Grimshaw in his negligence and injury case against Ford. Mr. Grimshaw, who suffered terrible burn injuries was awarded more than $128 million in the largest product liability verdict ever at the time.

There was no celebration for Mr. Grimshaw or his family. There was no celebration for the scores of victims killed and maimed by the Pinto. They do not remember the Ford Pinto fondly.

Facing mounting pressure by government regulators and lawsuits, Ford issued a voluntary recall of the Pinto in 1978. To his credit, Henry Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford, II, made the courageous decision to cease manufacturing the car in 1980. That decision is possibly the only thing we should celebrate about the Pinto legacy.

We don’t celebrate tires with treads that separate. We don’t celebrate toys with known choking hazards. We don’t celebrate dangerous cribs or high chairs. Instead, we should learn lessons from these products. And we should celebrate government regulation and the civil justice system that makes our products safer.

Celebrating the Ford Pinto is a morbid pursuit, akin to glamorizing a murderer. We should call the Ford Pinto what it was. At best, a horrible mistake. At worst, the natural result of reckless corporate greed.

Human life is not a cost to be calculated on a balance sheet. There is no acceptable number of injuries or deaths from a product. I hope that will be the legacy of the Ford Pinto.

If you want to remember the Ford Pinto on this 45th anniversary, read a list of the victims’ names. They’re the ones who shouldn’t be forgotten.

Mark P. Robinson, Jr. is the founder, senior partner and sole shareholder of Robinson Calcagnie Inc. based in Newport Beach, California. His practice is devoted to consumer safety law and he has worked on thousands of products liability cases, vehicle accidents, catastrophic injuries, dangerous drugs and class action litigation matters.