The Ford Pinto and the Price of Life

Back in the 1960’s, the Ford Motor Company faced strong competition in America’s small-car market. To fight the competition of Volkswagen and Japanese manufacturers, Ford rushed the development of its newest small car, the Ford Pinto.

Ford Pinto

During production, Ford engineers discovered a major flaw in the car’s design. In rear-end crash tests, the Pinto’s fuel system would rupture extremely easily. Despite this hazardous defect, Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway.

Safety proved not to be a major concern in the development process. The development specifications for the Pinto were that it “was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not cost a cent over $2,000.” Studies of Pinto accident reports revealed:

if a Pinto being followed at over 30 miles per hour was hit by that following vehicle, the rear end of the car would buckle like an accordion, right up to the back seat. The tube leading to the gas-tank cap would be ripped away from the tank itself, and gas would immediately begin sloshing onto the road around the car.

The buckled gas tank would be jammed up against the differential housing (the large bulge in the middle of the rear axle), which contains four sharp, protruding bolts likely to gash holes in the tank and spill still more gas.

Now all that is needed is a spark from a cigarette, ignition, or scraping metal, and both cars would be engulfed in flames. If a Pinto was struck from behind at higher speed say, at 40 mph chances are very good that its doors would jam shut and its trapped passengers inside would burn to death.

The financial analysis that Ford conducted on the Pinto concluded that it was not cost-efficient to add an $11 per car cost in order to correct the flaw.

Benefits derived from spending this amount of money were estimated to be $49.5 million. This estimate assumed that each death, which could be avoided, would be worth $200,000, that each major burn injury that could be avoided would be worth $67,000 and that an average repair cost of $700 per car involved in a rear end accident would be avoided. It further assumed that there would be 2,100 burned vehicles, 180 serious burn injuries, and 180 burn deaths in making this calculation. When the unit cost was spread out over the number of cars and light trucks which would be affected by the design change, at a cost of $11 per vehicle, the cost was calculated to be $137 million, much greater then the $49.5 million benefit.

Of course, these figures were wholly inaccurate and based on many assumptions. Still, I believe Ford’s ‘cost-benefit analysis’ was the first time that a monetary value had been placed on human life.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began investigating the case shortly after the Pinto was produced. It discovered that “a large and growing number of corpses taken from burned cars involved in rear-end crashes contained no cuts, bruises or broken bones. They clearly would have survived the accident unharmed if the cars had not caught fire.”

By 1972, the NHTSA’s research had gone on for four years, in which time “nearly 9,000 people burned to death in flaming wrecks. Tens of thousands more were badly burned and scarred for life. And the four-year delay meant that well over 10 million new unsafe vehicles went on the road, vehicles that will be crashing, leaking fuel and incinerating people well into the 1980s.” It wasn’t until May of 1978 that Ford followed the NHTSA’s demand and agreed to recall 1.5 million Pintos for a “safety related defect.”

The Ford Pinto disaster is a chilling example of corporate unaccountability in action. Although they had foreknowledge of the hazardous flaw and anticipated the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, they still decided that it simply was not profitable to make the cars more safe. This is a telling illustration of a corporation’s mindset; the public good is of little concern unless it coincides with profits.

33 Responses

  1. I wonder what method was used to determine the value of a consumer’s life at $200,000?

    I wonder because Ford must have known that realistically, the fiery death of a consumer doesn’t cost them jack.

    Aside from the loss of a potential future consumer, what does a profit-motivated entity lose when a customer dies in a car fire? Not a damn thing. Were lawsuits a factor in their estimate?

    The unconscionable thing is that the figure seems to be offered merely for the sake of argument, whimsically. They reason, “Even if a life [i]was[/i] worth this much (cough), correcting the defect would still be insanely unprofitable.”

    Very sad.

  2. Recent case law (1991) has shown that the case against the Pinto was less clear-cut than commonly supposed and than this article would have you believe. In reality, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report on the Pinto “indicated that it was aware of 38 instances in which rear-end impact resulted in fuel leakage or fire; these instances, in turn, resulted in 27 deaths and 24 non-fatal burn injuries.” Given the Pinto’s production figures (over 2 million built), this was no worse than typical for automobiles constructed at the time. The case further shows that the Pinto 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 which showed Ford’s callousness in designing the Pinto was a document based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations about the value of a human life, rather than a document used to design the Pinto.

    The case to which I am referring is available at:

  3. The $200,000 figure was indeed calculated by the NHTSA based on loss of earnings-

    None the less, the rationale that because the cost of a safety recall would exceed the projected monetary value of death and dismemberment, the recall should not be conducted, was Ford’s stated rationale and it was and is reprehensible.

  4. so they might blow up when u hit em’ but I have one of the nicest in the USA. Hit me up if u interested in a 350 rwhp 1980 2.3 turbo pinto. fresh paint, interior, wheels and tires

  5. […] Nah, they are bringing back the Pinto. They are trying to get the same crash results as the first model. Remember the Pinto? I used to see them as a kid and dad used to talk about Ford saving money on the car by cutting safety. Ford said it was better to pocket $49 million (after lawsuits) by not adding the correction to the car ($139 million in cost) and calculated the average human life was worth $200K. The Ford Pinto and the Price of Life […]

  6. […] Nah, they are bringing back the Pinto. They are trying to get the same crash results as the first model before releasing it. Remember the Pinto? I used to see them as a kid and dad used to talk about Ford saving money on the car by cutting safety. Ford said it was better to pocket $49 million (after lawsuits) by not adding the correction to the car ($139 million in cost) and calculated the average human life was worth $200K. The Ford Pinto and the Price of Life « […]

  7. I love your pinto! Where can I get one just like it?

  8. On a hot July night in 1977 my brother, his girlfriend and another friend were killed in a Ford Pinto.

    The car was unrecognizable after the accident.

  9. What Lee Ioccoca and Ford did is unforgivable. They ‘terrorized’ America with an American-made product all in the name of fighting against the invasion of the Japanese imports.
    In 1974-75 I rode several times in the back seat of a friend’s Pinto. I’m now grateful that we never had an accident or I would have probably burned to death.
    May all those engineers who didn’t speak up and out against the Pinto’s design burn in hell forever.

  10. […] company’s customers (or at least the lawsuits that they were likely to generate) were worth $200,000 apiece. Meanwhile, as people sell kidneys for as little as $6,000, it seems like a life might be worth […]

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  12. Hey nice post.
    About Volkswagen lemons, have you heard of the Volkswagen Phaeton? Can you believe it’s basically a chopped up Bentley Continental GT? Sad, but true.
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  13. […] to specific people involved with some sort of malfunction. Let's forget about the Pinto concept – The Ford Pinto and the Price of Life – in which the Ford Motor Co. cynically determined that paying off a few lawsuits is cheaper than […]

  14. You Go! Joey Alizio Jr :Hitman 1972: Outlaw Legendz OZ.

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  15. Do you know who owns this Ford Pinto??? if so Please Let me know. Been looking for this car for some time…


  16. mom mom has a 78′ Ford Pinto she bought used, Is this car safe? don’t sound like it? Please reply…it maybe for sale soon.

    • Kim, not safe by the standards of today but is was a very dependable economy car in its day. I bought a new one in 1976 and it served me faithfully for 13 years and I donated it the the Gudelsky Institute of Technology with over 130,000 miles on it and it was still running fine. If you were serious about selling the one your Mom has, feel free to contact me by e-mail. My name is Steve and my e-mail address is SGEORGE@ALLIEDPSI.COM

    • Hi Kim, this car is probably not safe. It is better to sell it to the junk and earn some money than to sell it to someones and they are injury or even burn to death.

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  18. […] Originally Posted by wpiman2 You can thank the FDA all you want– it was Coca Cola that discovered the problem and reported it to the FDA. The FDA would have never discovered the problem otherwise. Coke Finds Fungicide in O.J. (Update 1) – TheStreet Coke has a FAR larger incentive to test the products it sells than the FDA does. Coke is risking its reputation when it puts a product on the shelves. If someone gets sick, they are liable. If your relatives dies as a result of a tainted can of juice– good luck suing the FDA. You could sue Coke and easily win. So thank the free market incentives put in place. Sure, the FDA has a place but their role is managing a crisis once it is already discovered. I like to believe that the FDA and other safety agencies exist for the cases when the free market solution makes the wrong choice. […]

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  24. Beings how tin 1978 the NHTSA demanded ford to recall the problem, does that mean the 1979 and 1980 models built after the recall did not have this problem of igniting when hit in the rear?

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  28. Thank you for sharing this information with the public. I am unsure with, why they did not want to put more money into the ford pinto to prevent people from being harmed or losing their lives, but in the end it looks as though they paid out a lot more money than it would have cost them to just fix the flaw that they knew about before putting the pinto on the market. The people who lost their lives, their families will forever be changed and there is no amount of money that could replace their family member. The ones who got injured could have had to make major life changes because of their burns. This to me is very surprising that they were allowed to release this vehicle into the market with such flaws.

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