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Stop Promoting the Pinto Myth

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 Rutgerā€™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.

Over a wide range of reading about the Pinto case several things came to light. Lee Iacocca was not the great villain of all time, he went to revive the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s and became a legendary working man’s hero. There was never any evidence Iacocca knew of anything regarding those fuel tank allegations. The Pinto’s fuel tank was not an unusual configuration for a sub-compact at that time in the US market, it was no safer or more dangerous than other cars of it’s type. Sub-compacts are an inherently more dangerous vehicle than a larger car, it remains a fact of life today. We compromise safety and luxury for economy and convenience. One key reason for the controversial low fuel tank placement was that the Pinto was a hatchback, the fuel tank needed to be lower by necessity (common practice in its market of the early 1970s). At the same time, European cars had the higher tank which caused splashing of fuel onto back seat passengers in accidents – so the espoused cure was another compromise of safety.

Dowie’s facts in the Mother Jones article were blatantly wrong and clearly sensationalised to meet Dowie’s agenda. The offending cost-benefit analysis Dowie mentioned was never undertaken in the context of evaluating the Ford Pinto’s fuel tank in isolation. All Ford product lines were represented in the analysis and the cost of a human life was determined not by Ford but by a relevant government administrative body much earlier. This so-called damning cost-benefit analysis had been created for the insurance body, on request. It was not performed for the assessment of Pinto deaths by fire in rear-end collisions, as espoused by Dowie.

There was never any evidence to support the claim that the Pinto production schedule was 25 or 38 weeks… it may have been grossly mistaken by Dowie.

The US government openly asks designers to compromise between economics and safety. After all, the safest car in the world would never be built so trade-offs are essential to achieve product viability and industry competitiveness.

Why Do Business Academics get this so Wrong?

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of this case beyond asking you, the reader, to pass this information around to every academic you encounter who insists on passing the Pinto Myth along the academic food chain. The practice is sheer laziness with the facts and should be contested wherever the Pinto Myth raises its ugly misinformed head.

My question to academia is why? If Rutger’s Law Review debunked this myth in 1991, why is there a business school obsession with professors quoting the Pinto case as fact in academic literature over multiple disciplines? In each and every case I encountered, a fast backtrack through the referenced articles traced genealogically back to the Dowie article in Mother Jones. Even today, in a Strategic Management lecture, several students passionately raved about the Pinto Case as fact because another MBA professor had used it as a case study.

The Pinto Myth is BULLSHIT and does not belong in serious academic literature. Further, it does not even belong in our living room. Academic articles should never trace back to a popular published magazine article, because the source is generally unsafe… otherwise dig much deeper independently.

Curiously, there is also a complete divergence between management and business literature and the law literature. How can this be so? Business academics need to take this as a call to caution in their research, they must read more widely. The Pinto Case, as espoused, is wrong and easily unfolded. I can see no excuse.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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