Monday, March 15th, 2010
In late 1977 the Ford Pinto became infamous as a result of a controversial Mother Jones magazine article by Mark Dowie titled Pinto Madness. Dowie denounced the 1970s Ford Pinto sub-compact as a firebomb vulnerable to fatal explosions caused by rear end collisions. Dowie also claimed that Ford chose economics over human life – but that is an outright lie. Dowie’s so-called facts were debunked 20 years ago by Rutger’s Law Review.
The Pinto Case is cited widely in the academic literature of business management, organisational behaviour, management ethics and related disciplines. My question is why? The facts of the case are well documented in law journals – yet the Pinto myth maintains traction in business schools around the world. One article wrote that if it was untrue then it is the very case that an ethics course would invent. In that light, it is time for the Myth of the Pinto to be pushed aside by the facts of the case.
The Ford Pinto Myth as Espoused by Business School Professors
The case of the Ford Pinto, in the early 1970s, is usually put forward to students as a matter of fact. The young Turk Iacocca, rising on the success of the Ford Mustang, pushed for a sub-compact car to cost no more than $2000 and weigh no more than 2000 pounds. The production schedule of the Pinto was only 25 months, whereas industry standard was 43 months. In crashes over 25 miles per hour the fuel tank always ruptured spilling fuel onto the road, the low fuel tank was situated behind the differential and would get rammed into it on collision causing a spark and then ignition. At the same time, a rear end collision would cause the doors to jam shut and the result was a deadly fireball that incinerated the occupants.
The story gets more sinister when it turns out that the Capri’s tank was higher and therefore did not suffer the same problem. The Pinto’s fuel tank problem went unfixed for several reasons: Iacocca wanted the Pinto in showrooms by 1971; Iacocca would not suffer negative reports so nobody told him this flaw had been identified during testing (safety was not a Ford priority); and, a cost-benefit analysis of loss of lives compensation versus the cost of fixing the Ford Pinto’s fuel tank meant it was cheaper for Ford to ignore the problem and pay off the victims.
The cure would have been a simple $11 per vehicle fire prevention device… and an alternative bladder could have achieved the safety requirement for a mere $5.08 per vehicle. At around this time the academic has their student morally enraged.
The story is BULLSHIT and it is time that academics from the business schools stop spreading it around as the truth.
The Pinto Myth Debunked in Rutger’s Law Review, 1991
Enter another professional body that has well and truly debunked this myth a good 20 years ago – Myth of the Ford Pinto Case is from Rutger’s Law Review, 1991 volume 43:1013. You can download the Myth of the Ford Pinto Case from PointofLaw (link on the right side of their page). You can also read Grimshaw v Ford Motor Company (1981) online.