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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


The Pinto Memo: ‘It’s Cheaper to let them Burn!’

Nowadays, most people are aware that the late great Ford Pinto was widely considered to be a rolling death trap during its reign of terror from 1970 through 1980. 

This is mainly due to allegations that if it were rear-ended, the doors would jam shut and the bomb-like rear gas tank would explode upon impact.

Critics argue that before the Pinto was released to the public in 1970, Ford knew it was a potentially murderous and tacky–looking compact. Only, instead of recalling the cars for safety retrofits, Ford ran a cost-benefit analysis on the matter and found it would be cheaper to pay off the possible lawsuits of crash victims in out–of–court settlements.

“The Pinto Memo,” which contains these dirty numbers, was allegedly circulated among Ford’s senior management in 1968, two years before the Pinto hit the streets and caused a number of injuries and deaths.

Unfortunately for Ford, the memo was leaked to Mother Jones, an independent nonprofit magazine based in San Francisco known for investigative reporting.

An official copy of the memo is nearly impossible to find, presumably because Ford would rather not verify that they did in fact conduct a study weighing a dollar-valued human life against the costs of recalling a car.

Regardless, there does appear to be a definite consistency to the numbers the company allegedly crunched in the various Web sites, books and movies that make reference to the document. 

The Infamous "Pinto Memo"

Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires

Expected Costs of producing the Pinto with fuel tank modifications:
Expected unit sales: 11 million vehicles (includes utility vehicles built on same chassis)
Modification costs per unit: $11.00

Total Cost: $121 million (11,000,000 vehicles x $11.00 per unit)

Expected Costs of producing the Pinto without fuel tank modifications:
Expected accident results (assuming 2100 accidents)
180 burn deaths
180 serious burn injuries
2100 burned out vehicles

Unit costs of accident results (assuming out of court settlements)
$200,000 per burn death
$67,000 per serious injury
$700 per burned out vehicle

Total Costs: $49.53 million (180 deaths x $200k) + (180 injuries x $67k) + (2100 vehicles x $700 per vehicle)

In sum, the cost of recalling the Pinto would have been $121 million, whereas paying off the victims would only have cost Ford $50 million. The Pinto went into production in 1970 without the safety modifications. According to, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began to investigate the Pinto shortly after its release.

According to, after four years of research into the causes of vehicular fires, the NHTSA discovered that “during that time, nearly 9,000 people burned to death in flaming wrecks. Tens of thousands more were badly burned and scarred for life. And the four-year delay meant that over 10 million new unsafe vehicles went on the road, vehicles that will be crashing, leaking fuel and incinerating people well into the 1980s.”

Public outcry and various legal battles forced Ford to institute a recall for dealer–installed “safety kits.” The kits consisted of plastic safety wrappings intended to dull the pointy objects that might otherwise tear through the Pinto’s gas tank in the event of an accident.

The sticky technical side of the lil’ death trap’s problems broke down to this: Critics argued that because the Pinto did not have a true rear bumper or adequate reinforcement between the rear panel and the fuel tank, it was an exploding accordion waiting to compress.

When the rear of the car collapsed, the tank would be rocketed into the differential, which came equipped with various extended bolts perfect for puncturing the gassy bladder.

Adding to the fun, the Pinto’s doors also lacked stable reinforcement, meaning that they could crumple and jam shut, drawing the fiery coffin routine to a close.

These are just the arguments of the critics, mind you. The general public came up with the unofficial Pinto slogan, “the barbecue that seats four.”


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