Almost every single Automotive manufacturer at some point has produced a lemon. Whether they be an economic flop, butt ugly, poorly built or downright dangerous, there is a very long list of genuinely horrible cars from the past.
1971 Ford Pinto
The Ford Pinto will surely go down as one of the most infamous cars ever made. The media frenzy surrounding this car even became known as “Pinto Madness”.
As a car, the Pinto was fairly typical for an American small car of the time. That is mediocre at best. The RWD Pinto was powered initially by a 1.6 litre pushrod inline 4 and later a 2/2.3 litre 4 cylinder and finally a 2.8 litre V6. As emissions regulations got tighter in the 70’s, the power outputs of these engines actually went backwards! The 2.8 litre V6 made only about 100hp (74kw).
Braking performance was poor thanks to the tiny 4 wheel drums and the rear suspension was handled by leaf springs with a live axle. So far so ordinary right? The Ford Pinto had an Achilles heel that would set it apart from any other car of the era; it’s fuel tank.
Today modern small cars are built with their fuel tanks located ahead of the rear axle (usually underneath the rear passenger seat). This gives a few precious feet of crumple zone to absorb a rear end collision. In the case of the Pinto, the fuel tank was located directly behind the rear bumper. In a rear-end collision, all that was needed to turn Fords “little carefree car” into a bomb was a small spark (say from the now broken headlights of the other car).
The Pinto was not the only small 70’s American car to feature this fatal design flaw.
What makes the Pinto truely infamous is how Ford handled the whole debacle. A cost-benefit analysis was carried out by Ford. The cost of recalling all Pintos and fixing the fuel tank was weighed up against the potential lawsuits from the family’s of those involved in crashes. It was decided that it would be cheaper to pay compensation to the victims rather than actually fix the deadly design flaw!
In 1974 the National Highway Trafic Saftey Administration started an investigation into the design of the Pinto. It wasn’t until 1978 that a recall was formerly ordered. A new rear bumper design was installed on all Pintos as well as crash shielding around the fuel tank and a redesigned fuel filler neck. Unfortunately, these changes came too late for the 27 people who died in fiery rear-end collisions between 1971 and 1977.
Ford in the coming years would be sued no less than 117 times. Most of these cases were settled secretly out of court. In 1978 Ford would face one of the worst corporate PR incidents in history. In the Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co case, $127.8 million in total damages were awarded. To this day, this is the largest amount awarded in a US product liability and personal injury case.