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Made in America: The Pinto, and Other Cars of My Youth

Made in America: The Pinto, and Other Cars of My Youth

 

By Gaynell Gavin

My First               

I was eighteen, living with my first husband in Roxbury, Massachusetts, when I fell in love with Ford Pintos. I considered them the cutest little cars ever and wanted a Pinto station wagon — that adorably miniaturized American dream on wheels. And so it was that I acquired my first new car from a Boston dealer in the spring of 1973, just after the birth of my son.

I longed for a blue Pinto station wagon with fake wood side panels, but my husband and I couldn’t afford a wagon, so we settled for a stripped-down sedan instead. Even it would have been unaffordable without parental help, but when I mentioned getting a used car in a phone conversation with my dad, he instructed me to get a new one. “It’s safer for you and for the baby,” he said. “Your mom and I will help with the cost.”

My husband and I, both twenty, attended college in the Central California city of Fresno, arriving with our three-month old son in an un-air-conditioned gold Pinto on an August day so hot that when we pulled up to our brick apartment building on campus, I wanted to turn around and drive back out of town. Then the semester started, and the temperature cooled into a season of clear bright days under blue fall skies. We moved into a routine of classes and work.

Pinto side

Ford Pinto

A friend from church cared for our son. At the end of each day, as I drove to the mobile-home park where she lived, I began to love the surrounding landscape, which initially had struck me as monotonously flat. The agricultural San Joaquin Valley shimmered in Van Gogh shades of gold stretching to the horizon. When I arrived to pick up the baby, he and I were happy to see each other. He laughed a lot. His eyes had become deep brown, and his hair had grown into soft, dark, shining curls.

Lee’s Secret

By 1978, my son was five. I had divorced and moved home to the southwestern Illinois city of Alton, where family and close friends helped care for him. I spent much of his childhood divorced, working, and going to school simultaneously, which was difficult for both of us. Sunlit Saturdays and the softening colors of autumn early evenings brought respite from the demands that separated us.

The same year, in an apparently unrelated event, Lee Iacocca, who had led Ford Motor Company as president since 1970, was fired. Chrysler hired him promptly after this dismissal, and he served as CEO until retirement in 1992. Today he is over ninety and continues life as an iconic American success story.

Published in 2007, the latest of Iacocca’s three co-authored books is Where Have All the Leaders Gone? In it, he says, “A leader has to be a person of CHARACTER. That means knowing the difference between right and wrong and having the guts to do the right thing.” For the record, that bold capitalization conceit is his, not mine. Yet Iacocca’s character and leadership were at issue in the criminal case of Indiana v. Ford Motor Co. and the civil case of Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co.

In Indiana three girls burned to death in a Pinto that was struck from behind in 1978. Ford was prosecuted for reckless homicide, based on the design and manufacture of the car. In 1980, a jury deliberated for twenty-five hours before acquitting Ford. Perhaps defense attorneys had raised reasonable doubt about the recklessness of the company’s conduct, but given the rarity of criminal charges in product liability cases, it was an historical legal effort.

In 1972, the year before I moved to California, thirteen-year-old Richard Grimshaw was riding in a nearly new Pinto when the car stalled and was hit from behind by a Ford Galaxy. The Pinto burst into flames. Its driver suffered fatal burns. Richard survived with “severe and permanently disfiguring burns on his face and entire body,” as noted in the Grimshaw v. Ford appellate court decision, which also said, “In 1968, Ford began designing a new subcompact automobile which ultimately became the Pinto. Mr. Iacocca, then a Ford vice president, conceived the project and was its moving force.”

…letting people burn to death, letting even more suffer injuries, and then settling the lawsuits would be cheaper than fixing
the gas tanks, which is exactly what Ford did.

A secret internal memo, obtained by journalist Mark Dowie, revealed that Ford had valued the cost of burning to death in the Pinto at $200,000 per person, and of serious injury at $67,000. At the cost of $11 per gas tank, the cars could have been made significantly safer, which the memo calculated would have prevented 180 deaths annually. But it went on to calculate that letting people burn to death, letting even more suffer injuries, and then settling the lawsuits would be cheaper than fixing the gas tanks, which is exactly what Ford did.

Unbeknownst to me, the Indiana Pinto crash was about to occur, and Grimshaw was wending its tortuous way through the California legal system when, on a hot summer day, I ran a stop sign that was totally obscured by a tree and another car hit mine on the front passenger side. My five-year-old was not with me. My sister and I were the only ones in my Pinto. The car was totaled, but neither of us was seriously injured. We had no idea what it meant to have the Pinto struck in the front rather than the rear.

Car Code  

As my father had explained when he instructed me to get a new Pinto, rather than a used car, he and my mother believed they were providing my family safe, reliable transportation, which is why they helped us get the Pinto.

Raising the issue of whether or not Ford’s lawyers had any Pinto-related “whistle-blowing” obligation, law professor and author David Luban noted that in trading “cost for safety,” Ford did “what car manufacturers must always do. Safety costs money, and people may not be willing to pay the price.” However, it would be more accurate to say people may not be “able,” rather than “willing,” to pay the price.

Ford_Pinto_Reckless_HomicideIf informed and able to pay, most people choose safety. The premise of unwillingness, rather than inability, to pay presumes informed decisions, as Luban acknowledged implicitly by revealing that, only as a result of his research, did he decide to replace his own compact with a larger, heavier car. In marketing “Lee’s Car,” as it was known at Ford, company managers carefully hid their dirty not-so-little secret: that the Pinto “price” included significantly increased risk (relative to other cars) of burning to death or surviving severe burns and enduring life-long suffering. My mother revealed this information to me over three years after my Pinto was totaled.

I recall her now, dark hair graying, eyes blue as ever, seated at my Formica kitchen table when I got home from law school one spring afternoon, her greeting a demand, “Do you know what Ford has done? Do you?”

I dropped a pile of books on the table, glanced at the patient maple’s greening spread outside my kitchen window, and sighed. “Of course I don’t know, Mom. I’m a single-parent law student. I’m always in class, fixing breakfast or dinner, or reading bedtime stories or textbooks full of old law cases. I might be able to explain what ‘fee tail male’ means, but other than what I learn from you, I have no clue what’s going on in today’s world. What did Ford do?”

“Those men, those goddamned patriarchal prick Ford men, sat around together and decided it would be cheaper to have defective gas tanks and let people burn up in their Pintos than to pay something like ten dollars a tank to fix them. So that’s what they did.” Her voice rose in rage with each syllable.

According to Luban, whose head my mother probably would have wanted to rip off, the Pinto simply did not hold up at lower speeds than more expensive cars, so where it failed to withstand crashes at speeds of only twenty to thirty miles per hour, a better car would fail at forty, and an even better one at fifty-five; but none are actually safe, “and thus they will generate their grotesque cost-benefit analyses.” Maybe so, but even Luban acknowledged that the comparable VW Rabbit and Toyota Corolla did not readily burst into flames in rear-end crashes, as the Pinto did.

Family Values

Did Lee Iacocca or either of his two daughters ever ride in a Pinto? Given his concealed knowledge of the danger and his socioeconomic status, it seems unlikely. “Lee’s Car” was manufactured and marketed for a different class, for someone who might be able to get a car with parental help, someone like a twenty-year-old — a little nobody and her baby. It is unlikely that he valued his daughters’ lives at the same $200,000 value he placed on my son’s life. Perhaps he considers his children invaluable, as I do mine. It may be the only thing we have in common.

As Justice Stephen Tamura noted in his Grimshaw appellate opinion, Pinto test results had been forwarded up the chain of command to Iacocca. Justice Tamura examined deficiencies that testing revealed:

When a prototype failed the fuel system integrity test, the standard of care for engineers in the industry was to redesign and retest it. The vulnerability of the … Pinto’s fuel tank at speeds of 20 and 30-miles-per-hour … could have been remedied by inexpensive “fixes,” but Ford produced and sold the Pinto to the public without doing anything to remedy the defects.

At trial, Harley Copp, the engineer who had been in charge of the crash testing program, testified that “the highest level of Ford’s management made the decision to go forward … knowing that the gas tank was vulnerable …” and knowing the nominal cost of correction. Engineers had complained about the fuel system, reports had been submitted to management, and Copp had been forced into early retirement for speaking out about safety.

Lido Anthony "Lee" Iacocca

Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca

There may be some remaining debate about whether or not the car was any more dangerous than other subcompacts of its era, but Pinto sales plunged as news of the dangerous gas tanks spread. Whatever happened in courtrooms, Ford was convicted in the court of public opinion, proving that, when aware of its danger, people chose not to buy the Pinto. After 1980, “Lee’s Car” was never manufactured again. These developments had no discernible effect on Lee Iacocca’s iconic stature.

Iacocca interests me, not so much as an individual, but as an icon and a phenomenon, exemplifying Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. I find Justice Tamura far more interesting as a too-rare example of judicial moral courage. During World War II, he was interned with his family, before serving in the Nisei 442nd Infantry Regiment, renowned for its soldiers’ bravery. Decades later, as the first Asian American on the California Courts of Appeal, he expressed the sort of judicial courage that might have prevented war-time imprisonment of his family. As for my mother, perhaps she interests me most of the three, but I can hardly claim lack of bias. Raging about injustice, she was such an exhausting woman that twenty-five years before her death, I could not imagine the world without her or how I would miss her for many reasons, not least of which was her moral compass.

Backbone

Henry Ford, 1919 [courtesy of United States Library of Congress]

Henry Ford, 1919 [courtesy of United States Library of Congress]

Henry Ford said, “Simple, plain, honest, hard-working people, that’s the backbone of not just the United States; it’s the backbone of the world.” Superficially at least, my parents seemed to meet this definition. Ford continued to consider himself a man of such “simple” people even as his wealth and power increased. Paradoxically he paid good wages that helped create the middle class, yet working conditions in his factories deteriorated, becoming increasingly inhumane, and he became consumed with the bloody work of breaking unions. In addition to unions, he hated Jews. Among other expressions of this hatred, he opined, “The Jews are the scavengers of the world. Wherever there’s anything wrong with a country, you’ll find the Jews on the job there.”

1960 brought the first president of Ford from outside the family, Robert McNamara, who became Secretary of Defense the following year. Until resigning in 1968, McNamara reigned over the Vietnam War — known in Vietnam as the American War — in which my current husband (who, coincidentally, happens to be Jewish) was hit by shrapnel, stabbed, and nearly deafened by artillery fire before his back was broken. He was also poisoned by Agent Orange, manufactured for our government primarily by Dow and Monsanto.

Of course it is unfair to reduce Ford, McNamara, or any individual to a few sentences. It is also unfair to corporate Ford, Dow, and Monsanto to do so. After all, as I have been reminded by the U.S. Supreme Court and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, legally speaking, corporations are people too.

My “backbone of the world” parents generally supported unions, had close Jewish friends, and did not believe in corporate personhood, but what would they know?

The Right Thing

Thirty years after the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979 saved Chrysler, with Iacocca at its helm, bankrupt General Motors received a government bailout. Now — in an era when the average CEO’s income has soared to 331 times that of the average U.S. worker — GM’s first female CEO Mary Barra has a compensation package totaling over $14 million annually. It has been suggested that if she were male, she would get more. Even as a feminist, I hardly agonize over this possible injustice. Like my mother before me, I am more concerned that, unlike when other persons injure or kill people, when corporate persons do so, no one seems to get in much trouble.

Like my mother before me,
I am more concerned that, unlike when other persons injure or kill people, when corporate persons do so,
no one seems to get
in much trouble.

On April 1, 2014, Barra, nicknamed “Car Gal” by her predecessor, testified before Congress. Lawmakers wanted to know why GM concealed a defective ignition switch in various models of its automobiles for over ten years. The switch’s defects caused cars to turn off suddenly without warning (resulting in crashes) and prevented airbag deployment (thus disabling the very system designed to protect people when cars crash). Though she had been with the company for approximately thirty-three years and headed product development before becoming CEO, Car Gal was unable to shed any light on the defective ignition problem. She did promise to “do the right thing,” whatever that may be.

As for the Takata airbag scandal that followed GM’s ignition insanity, and the VW emissions scandal, Jesus wept. Ford, GM, Takata, Volkswagen, whoever — what is wrong with these people, and maybe worse, who can keep track of this stuff? It is so damned tediously redundant.

Even to myself, I sound rather like my unfashionably strident mother. “Strident” is the word used most often in trying to make women shut up.

Coda

During law school, I commuted from Alton, on the Illinois-Missouri border, to St. Louis. My silver Plymouth Horizon broke down frequently, stalling repeatedly, and my father promised to help me replace it, stipulating that the new car had to be made in America. He was a loyal American, convinced that the Pinto was a good country’s aberration. I wanted to believe he was right. The lemon Horizon was passed on to my younger sister for local use only, but it continued to break down so often that she was driven to write a letter of complaint to Lee Iacocca. Nostalgically I long for my lost copy of her lamentation now, recalling only its salutation, “Dear Asshole.”

Credit: IFCAR, via Wikimedia Commons

Early 1980s Ford Escort [credit: IFCAR, via Wikimedia Commons]

My father’s men’s clothing business had flourished in the post-World War II economic boom, and my parents escaped childhood poverty for upper-middle-class affluence, which both maintained after their divorce. Despite my teen marriage and child, their escape helped protect my son and me from poverty also. Thanks to my dad, I got a 1982 metallic blue Ford Escort shortly before my mom’s revelation about the dangerous Pinto gas tanks. Probably I would not have bought another Ford had I known about the Pinto first.

Now when I make the thirteen-hour drive home to Alton, I see the building that housed my father’s store standing empty — dark, derelict, blank — like the movie theater my uncle managed, and like nearly every building on the entire block. Recently United States Steel idled its plant in nearby Granite City, putting over two thousand people out of work. Closer to my dad’s old store, Laclede Steel filed bankruptcy in 2001, but the site is now owned by Alton Steel Inc., which offers some hope to the area. However, ASI, a much smaller plant than Granite City’s, had a recent layoff also, affecting over sixty people, about a fourth of its employees. More remote, the long-gone Fisher Body plant, which built cars across the river in St. Louis, is a whisper of memory from an elementary school field trip.

Despite the Ford Pinto debacle, I recall my Escort with great affection. It reminds me of my father. Also I liked the local Ford dealer from whom my family bought cars then, and I like him still. Ford’s moral idiocy was not his fault. Mostly though, I loved the Escort because, throughout my law-school days, on winter evenings, after classes ended, it carried me faithfully across the Missouri River’s Lewis Bridge, then to the Mississippi. There, the old Clark Bridge waited, black against a purple-gray sky, smattered with gold to the west. Crossing that bridge, I was almost home.

___
Gaynell Gavin is the author of a novella, Attorney-at-Large (Main Street Rag Publishing, 2012). Her work appears in many magazines and anthologies. She lives in Columbia, SC with her husband and rescued menagerie.

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8 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    May 25, 2016

    Cars are personal. Cars are American-and so is greed. Gaynell tell the All-American narrative.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    May 25, 2016

    Malcom Gladwell has a compelling look at the very issue of how people think about and address issues like the Pinto: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/04/the-engineers-lament

    It’s quite easy, and even reasonable, to point to the calculating, cold memos that demonstrate a heartless decision. But (from Gladwell’s piece) here are the fatality numbers per million vehicles from ’75 and ’76 of cars similarly classed to the Pinto:

    Gremlin 274 315
    Vega 288 310
    Datsun 1200/210 392 418
    Datsun 510 294 340
    Pinto 298 322
    Corolla 333 293
    VW Beetle 378 370

    No fiery death, no dramatic story to those VW fatalities that are statistically way worse than the Pinto. Where’s the uproar there? Who was mad about the high death rate of the Datsun 1200?

    Gavin fails to mention in this piece that the girls who died in the wreck pulled over in an area with no berm, had left the gas cap off the car, and were hit by a van much larger than the Pinto driven at approximately 50mph by someone who had recently consumed alcohol. It’s convenient to say “perhaps the Ford attorneys raised reasonable doubt” rather than highlight additional facts that played a very significant role in the fatalities. I suspect the author’s decision to do so was because it’s easier to gloss over the realities of a 40 year old incident in order to fit a desired narrative than it is to actually look at the facts of each individual incident.

    Happily, the author’s Pinto performed admirably enough in an accident to allow the purchase of another vehicle, as well as for the writing of this story of how horrible Pintos and the people who presided over their creation were. Would such an accident have been different in a VW beetle, the front of which is demonstrably less strong than the front-engined Pinto? Who knows? But if we are burning Iaccoca at the stake, we probably ought to be looking into the other automakers whose fatality records were worse.

    I would not wish an accident on anyone, much less a fiery demise. However, there are more effective and less emotionally-driven ways of looking at products, corporate decisions, and acceptable safety standards.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    May 26, 2016

    Eddy: I think the reason the Pinto case stands out in peoples’ minds as such a catastrophe is because – unlike the vehicles you list in your comment – there’s documentary evidence of Ford executives performing cost/benefit calculations on the Pinto showing that the cost of fixing a problem they knew existed was more expensive than the court settlements that follow letting people die horrible deaths and suffer gruesome injuries. (This is a point that Gladwell excludes from his article as well.)

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    May 27, 2016

    It’s memoir, not reportage. And it’s a nice bit of writing that sparked good commentary. Success!

    Reply

  5. Avatar
    May 27, 2016

    An amicus brief/memoir that reminds me the American engine of ingenuity is fueled by greenbacks.

    Reply

  6. Avatar
    May 28, 2016

    The Ford Pinto was also known by another monicker: “The Barbeque that seats four.” Ha!

    Reply

  7. Avatar
    May 28, 2016

    In 2004, Forbes magazine included the Pinto among its fourteen Worst Cars of All Time, saying “When people talk about how bad American small cars created an opportunity for the Japanese to come in and clean house in the 1970s and ’80s, they are referring to vehicles like this.”

    Reply

  8. Avatar
    May 31, 2016

    I remember someone from high school who had a large white sign on his Pinto’s back that read “FLAMMABLE!” I also knew someone with a Vega who would pull up at a service station saying “Check the gas, and oil the oil!” My first American car was a 1970 Impala I bought for $300 and got two years from it. I now drive a GM car that had the ignition recall. I had the same make and model in the same trim level I put 154,312 miles on before my insurance company declared it a total loss after Bambi ran in front of it.
    Thank Heaven American cars have gotten much better. My last two cars were union-made in Lansing MI.

    Reply

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