Balls Of Fire, Then And Now

Thomas Kreutzer
by Thomas Kreutzer

Chrysler’s recent decision to snub a recent NHTSA recall request is big news. I need not restate the facts of the story, if you are a “car guy” and haven’t heard the sordid details, or noticed the dramatic photos of burned out Jeep Grand Cherokees and Liberties posted all over the internet in the past few days, you must live under a rock. With 2.7 million vehicles involved the costs of conducting such a recall would be staggering but, ultimately, inaction may cost the company even more money if consumers lose confidence in the brand.

Because the root cause of the recall is said to involve rear-end collisions, ruptured fuel tanks, and the possibility of a death so gruesome that most of us shudder to even think about it, people are drawing a natural comparison between the current case and the Ford Pinto debacle of the 1970s. They appear the same on the surface but that’s only because, as much as I am loathe to admit it, the ‘70s were a long time ago and public awareness of the details of that earlier case has wasted away. In their rush to assert that history is repeating itself, people leap over a critical piece of the story that makes what happened almost 40 years ago much, much worse. Namely that Ford knew about the tendency of the Pinto to explode before the cars even left the factory, and, because it would cost an extra $11 per car to fix, they elected not to act.

The case against Ford was laid out in great detail by Mother Jones News in their October 1977 issue – view the original article – and it makes chilling reading. In a nutshell, that article states that the problems with the Pinto’s fuel tank became apparent during pre-production crash tests, but that Ford elected to go ahead with the car as designed because the tooling for the cars was already in place and because the overall cost to upgrade the car was deemed to be higher than the cost potential settlements to the families of those people unfortunate enough to be burned alive in an accident. Mother Jones backed up this assertion with a leaked Ford memo that revealed that an internal cost-benefit analysis had determined that the company’s average estimated payout in the event of a death caused by the defect would be $200,000. Crunching the numbers, then, was simple: $11 times X million cars over the car’s product cycle vs $200,000 times a projected 180 burn deaths per year. Chillingly logical, isn’t it?

Once Mother Jones blew the lid off this story, people got enraged and Pinto sales dropped precipitously. In 1977, seven full years after the car’s introduction, Ford finally made the required modifications and the car continued to appear on Ford lots where it sold in much smaller numbers until it finally went away in 1980. Today, the Ford Pinto has virtually vanished from the streets and, when they do appear, they seem more an oddity than a rolling death trap released upon the world through corporate duplicity.

I suppose that those whose lives have been effected by current “alleged” defect in Chrysler’s Jeeps will care little about the distinction I make between a vehicle that is determined after the fact to have a possibly deadly defect and one that left the factory with a similar defect with the full knowledge of the people running the program, but to me the difference is an important one. One is a mistake, the other is murder. One deserves to be prosecuted and the other made right. Both, however, need to be remembered in their correct context.

Even so, Chrysler should not ignore the lesson that Ford learned in the ensuing debacle. People don’t like to be burned alive in their cars. We don’t even like the thought of it. Over time we may forget the specific details, but we will remember the part about the burning. Don’t forget that. Make this right before its too late.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He writes for any car website that will have him and enjoys public speaking. According to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

Thomas Kreutzer
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  • April April on Jun 07, 2013

    They did a Pinto styled recall on my 1977 Chevrolet Chevette. Added a plastic shield between the fuel tank and rear differential. I wonder if it was a proactive fix or they had as many fires as Ford.

  • -Nate -Nate on Jun 08, 2013

    Well said Thomas . Driving is dangerous no matter how you look at it ~ I was waiting at a red light on my Moto in 2008 , 04:30 when I was rear ended by a gypsy cab and nearly killed ~ it just happens sometimes . Although I own several Mercedes W-123s , I vastly prefer driving my '69 Chevy C/10 pickup or 1959 Metropolitan Nash Fixed Head Coupe everywhere I go , including Death Valley etc. Both are DEATH TRAPS but . life is uncertain , instead of living in a cocoon and crying myself to sleep , I embrace life and if I die , so be it . You alls might want to read up on what actually happens when you " burn to death " because you don't ~ you suffocate after the hot gasses & air burn away the bronchial matter in your lungs.... For real fun , look at the old safety test films of GM pickups being center punched with the in cab's fuel tank full of red dyed fuel ~ scarier than anything I've ever experienced but I still drive it daily . -Nate

    • Nrd515 Nrd515 on Jun 08, 2013

      Scary is right! I witnessed a wreck where a Chevy C/10 was T-Boned by a Lincoln MKIV at high speed. The Linc's driver (drunk, of course)ran a stop sign, not even touching the brakes, according to a guy who was behind her. She was doing about 60. In Las Vegas, the streets have a kind of a gully on some of them, for water to run down when it rains, and when the Linc hit it, it went a little airborne and hit the truck almost perfectly dead center. The driver was badly hurt, with a broken pelvis and left leg, but her main concern was that she was totally covered in gas. The gas tank behind her seat was filled just before the wreck, and about half of it was laying on the floor of the cab, and all over her. There was something smoking under the hood which was jammed shut. She kept saying, "Oh please don't let me burn!" to the half dozen of us who were basically helpless standing around waiting for the police to arrive. We had two small fire extinguishers, but if the truck would have gone up, I don't think they would have helped her. We finally agreed that if she gave the word, we would pull her out the window, as anything would be better than going up in flames. She was getting more and more panicky, and then the police showed up with a huge crowbar that they used to open the hood, and after the battery was disconnected, the door. An ambulance came and took her away to the hospital. Later on, I was contacted by the drunk's lawyer, who wasn't happy when I told him what I would say if called as a witness. Never heard from him again. The Linc's driver had 3 previous DUI's, so I don't know why they weren't just trying to settle the case.

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