Before Lee Iacocca became famous for rescuing Chrysler from bankruptcy (through a massive government loan, it should be remembered!), he was president of the Ford Motor Company. The Ford Mustang was his brain-child, and its tremendous success made him yearn for a repeat performance.

The result of his efforts was the Ford Pinto.

This was the late 60s, when the demand for sub-compacts was rising on the market. Iacocca's specifications for the design of the car were uncompromising: "The Pinto was not to weigh an ounce over 2,000 pounds and not cost a cent over $2,000." During design and production, however, crash tests revealed a serious defect in the gas tank. In crashes over 25 miles per hour, the gas tank always ruptured. To correct it would have required changing and strengthening the design. A journalist covering the story wrote:

"When it was discovered the gas tank was unsafe, did anyone go to Iacocca and tell him? "Hell no," replied an engineer who worked on the Pinto, a high company official for many years… "That person would have been fired. Safety wasn't a popular subject around Ford in those days. With Lee it was taboo. Whenever a problem was raised that meant a delay on the Pinto, Lee would chomp his cigar, look out the window and say, 'Read the product objectives and get back to work.'"

In 1965, Ralph Nader had brought automobile safety to the public's attention with his book Unsafe at Any Speed. Government was just beginning to regulate automobile safety in those days, but Ford had a way of getting around it. Lobbyists for Ford and other auto-makers convinced the government to delay regulations on fuel tanks for eight years.

One of the tools that Ford used to argue for the delay was a "cost-benefit analysis" of altering the fuel tanks. According to Ford's estimates, the unsafe tanks would cause 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries, and 2,100 burned vehicles each year. It calculated that it would have to pay $200,000 per death, $67,000 per injury, and $700 per vehicle, for a total of $49.5 million. However, the cost of saving lives and injuries ran even higher: alterations would cost $11 per car or truck, which added up to $137 million per year. Essentially, Ford argued before the government that it would be cheaper just to let their customers burn!

Of course, the public eventually learned that the Pinto had a tendency to explode in rear-end collisions, and victims and their families sued the company. Jurors were outraged over Ford's low value of human life and awarded the victims huge settlements. However, the final shocker came when Ford actually got around to fixing the flawed gas tanks. It turns out that the "cost-benefit analysis" that Ford submitted to the government was entirely bogus: the cost of fixing each car was not $11, but merely one dollar.

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This article is based on Mark Dowie, "Pinto Madness," Mother Jones, September/October 1977, pp. 18-32.