Balls Of Fire, Then And Now
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.
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