True Conspiracy: The Ford Pinto Memorandum

The Pinto automobile was marketed by Ford from 1971 to 1980 to try to feed the new American appetite for smaller cars. With its dinkster four-cylinder engine, the Pinto was battling the Volkswagon Beetle and the Toyota Corolla for the hearts and minds of those who wanted sewing-machine engines under their hoods.

Up until the first gas crisis of the 1970s, Americans were used to 30-cent-a-gallon gasoline. So American engineers weren't quite used to this business of dropping weight wherever possible in order to increase gas mileage. Consequently, the Pinto contained a major and potentially dangerous design flaw — the car had no classic, heavyweight bumper, as well as little reinforcement between the rear panel and the gas tank. When a Pinto got rear-ended, it was far too easy, even in a relatively minor accident, for the fuel tank to be ruptured, or worse, driven into the differential and punctured by the large bolts that held it in place. On top of this flaw, the doors could very easily jam after an accident, again due to the cracker-box construction that caused the metal to be so easily twisted and compressed. In other words, the Pinto was considered a deathtrap on four wheels.

Now the conspiracy begins. Ford was fully aware of all these construction problems. However, people didn't know that until Mother Jones magazine published a stolen copy of an infamous memo that was sent out to all senior management at the Ford Motor Company.

Here are the highlights of the memo on the altar worshipping the Almighty Buck:

1. With expected unit sales of 11 million Pintos, and a total cost per unit to modify the fuel tank of $11, a recall would have cost Ford $121 million.

2. But, using mathematical formulations of a probable 2,100 accidents that might result in 180 burn deaths, 180 seriously burned victims, and 2,100 burned-out vehicles, the "unit cost" per accident, assuming an out-of-court settlement, came to a probable $200,000 per death, $67,000 per serious injury, and $700 per burned-out vehicle, leaving a grand total of $49.53 million.

3. Allowing the accidents to occur represented a net savings of nearly $70 million.

4. Therefore, a human life was mathematically proven to be worth less than an $11 part.

Ford continued to build and market the Pinto without modifications until news of the memo broke. It led to criminal charges, an avalanche of lawsuits, and a recall of all Pintos; the mess went on for years. Not to mention the fact that Ford got some of the worst press an American car company has ever received. Later studies indicated that the Pinto may not have been any more prone to blowing up on contact than any other car, but by that time, the damage was done.

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