On this day in 1978, three teenage girls die after their 1973 Ford Pinto is rammed from behind by a van and bursts into flames on an Indiana highway. The fatal crash was one of a series of Pinto accidents that caused a national scandal during the 1970s.
The small and economical Pinto, which debuted in 1970, was Ford’s first subcompact car produced domestically, and its answer to popular imports like the Volkswagen Beetle and the Toyota Corolla. Lee Iacocca, then an executive vice president at Ford and later to earn fame as head of Chrysler, spearheaded the Pinto’s development. Initial reviews of the Pinto’s handling and performance were largely positive, and sales remained strong, with Ford introducing new Pinto models such as the Runabout and the Sprint over the course of the early 1970s.
By 1974, however, rumors began to surface in- and outside the company about the Pinto’s tendency to catch fire in rear-end collisions. In May 1972, a California woman was killed when her Pinto caught fire after being rear-ended on a highway. Her passenger, Richard Grimshaw, was burned over 90 percent of his body but survived; he sued Ford for damages. Grimshaw’s lawyer found that the Pinto’s gas tank sat behind the rear axle, where it was particularly vulnerable to damage by rear-end collisions. He also uncovered evidence that Ford had known about this weakness ever since the Pinto first went on sale, and had done nothing about it, mostly because changing the design would have been too costly. An article in Mother Jones magazine in the fall of 1977 exposed the Pinto safety concerns to a national audience, and a California jury’s award of $128 million to Grimshaw in February 1978 spread the news still further. That June, Ford voluntarily recalled all 1.9 million 1971-1976 Pintos and 1975-1976 Mercury Bobcats (which had the same fuel-tank design).
As Douglas Brinkley wrote in “Wheels for the World,” his history of Ford, the Ehrlich girls, who died in the rear-end collision in Indiana on August 8, 1978, were apparently unaware of the Pinto-related dangers; their family would not receive a recall notice until early 1979. A grand jury later returned indictments against Ford on three counts of reckless homicide in the Ehrlich case, marking the first time in history that a corporation had been charged with murder. Ford claimed that the Pinto’s fuel-tank design was the same as other subcompacts, and that the company had done everything possible to comply with the recall once it had been enacted. Due to a lack of evidence, the jury found Ford not guilty in that case. A California appeals court upheld the Grimshaw victory, however, ordering Ford to pay $6.6 million and stating that the company’s “institutional mentality was shown to be one of callous indifference to public safety.”