Managing Product Safety: the Ford Pinto

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Shortly after its introduction, and throughout most of the 1970's, the Ford Pinto was one of Ford Motor's best-selling cars, helping to strengthen Ford's market position within the industry. The Pinto was introduced to the market in September 1970 and dubbed by Ford as the "carefree little American car" (Davidson, p 3). The Pinto was Ford's answer to imported subcompact autos, which held 18.4% of the market, a market that had not yet been entered into by domestic auto manufacturers (Davidson, p. 3).

The design and development process of the Pinto began in June 1967. Lee Iacocca, Ford's president, directed that the Pinto was to be completed and on the showroom floor with the 1971 models. Ford engineers were able to complete the development, design, and production of the Pinto in 38 months; 5 months shorter than the industry average time of 45 months. Iacocca had another goal for the Pinto, "the limits of 2,000". "The Pinto was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not to cost a cent over $2,000" (Davidson, p 4).

The seemingly largest design hurdle to overcome on the Pinto was where to safely position the fuel tank. Late in the design phase of the Pinto, "an engineering study determined that the safest place for a fuel tank is directly above the rear axle" (Davidson, p 4). It was later determined however, that positioning the fuel tank over the rear axle would increase the threat of ignition. Also, by placing the fuel tank over the rear axle storage space would be reduced along with making servicing the vehicle more difficult (Davidson, p 4). It was then decided that the fuel tank would be positioned behind the rear axle and under the rear floor pan.

In January 1969, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would propose its first standard concerning the safety of a vehicle from gas leakage in rear-end collisions. This new standard, Standard 301, would require that a "stationary vehicle should leak less than one ounce of fuel per minute after being hit by a 4,000 pound barrier moving at 20 mph" (Davidson, p 4). Ford approved of this standard and adopted the standard for its entire line. Ford also began to test the Pinto using prototypes of the Pinto since it had not yet been produced. Of the four tests conducted on the prototypes, three of the tests produced leakage slightly over the standard, while the fourth test resulted in massive fuel leakage due to an improper weld. Ford did take the results of these tests and slightly altered the design of the Pinto and was able to make the changes before production began. The results of Ford's Pinto fuel tank tests were just the beginning of the issues that would come to light concerning the safety of the Pinto fuel tank.

The government decided not to adopt the 20 mph moving barrier test described above. Instead, NHTSA proposed a 20 mph fixed barrier test to test the safety of fuel tanks in crashes. In this test, the vehicle "is towed backwards into a fixed barrier at the specified speed" (Davidson, p 5). Ford and other automakers opposed this new testing. Ford estimated that this test would be twice as severe as the original 20 mph moving barrier test. Many engineers felt that this was unrealistic and very seldom occurred in the real world. Fixed barrier tests that Ford later performed resulted in "excessive leakage" from the Pinto fuel tank (Davidson, p 5). Due to the costs involved in designing the fuel tank to pass this test, Ford decided to continue production and testing using the previous testing method.

In 1971, A.J. Pricor, a junior engineer at Ford published the "Pricor Report", a 30 page study listing "several recommendations for how to make the car substantially safer from fuel leakage and fire in rear – end crashes" (Davidson, p 5). There were five major options listed in the report: "An over–the-axle gas tank, a repositioned spare tire, installation of body rails, a redesigned filler pipe, and an inner-tank rubber bladder" (Davidson, p...
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