By on June 7, 2013


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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30 Comments on “Balls Of Fire, Then And Now...”

  • avatar

    Having seen the quality go down on my last 3 new jeeps I am longer interested in that line of vehicles.I am going to be in the market later this year for a new 1/2 ton pickup.I was interested in the new ram 1500 diesel but again the quality for that vehicle isn’t up to par either.Right or wrong,chrysler/fiat has a problem long before this latest debacle has showed up.Just the refueling ‘spit-back’ has been known for over a decade and still persists.In my way of thinking,they have a long way to go so I will continue to ignore their products.

  • avatar

    As if the new Cherokee wasn’t enough to turn off potential customers, now we have a recall for older models.

  • avatar

    Another difference is that the Pintos were actually struck in the rear. Don’t see that in several of these “evidence” photos of Jeeps from NHTSA.

    Does that make these Jeeps more or less dangerous? What caused the no-impact fires?

    • 0 avatar

      Precisely, the one in the above photo still has its spare tire intact which makes me think the fire started elsewhere, not in the rear, and obviously not by an impact. So what are we talking about here; a potential for a problem from an impact, some other issue that causes a fire or no issue at all due to the low statistic?

      As for Ford’s liability calculation, I hate to break the news but I have worked for several large corporations that operate with significant, potential liability exposure in their day to day operations and it always comes down to the liklihood of a “problem” and the potential liability exposure/financial impact. I’m not being callous to another’s misery, it’s just the reality inherent in how certain industry segments operate.

      As for the the Pinto’s fall off in sales, it had more to do with the fact that it was a P.O.S. and by ’76-’77 it was seriously upstaged by the more current, better engineered Rabbit and Corolla, among others.

      • 0 avatar

        The other thing left out about the Pinto was that it exceeded the standards in effect at the time so that was also factored into Ford’s decision. The reality was that a Honda Civic of the time was about twice as likely to explode on a rear impact but it too met the standards of the time. There just wasn’t a memo with a proposed solution as engineers had considered for the Pinto.

  • avatar

    The actual car in question was rear ended by a Semi. Crushed right up to the back seat. The vehicles in question have better safety records than competitors. Even CNN is supporting Chrysler. This is an emotional hot potato as the author said. A PR fiasco.

    • 0 avatar

      True. Chrysler reviewed the crashes in question and found that the forces involved far far exceeded the test standards of the day.

      Publications that deliberately publish random burning pictures of vehicles that have nothing to do with this investigation are willfully seeking to harm the reputation of the company.

      • 0 avatar

        That Liberty photo is from the study. It burned after being struck by a Plymouth Neon. The lack of body damage supports the NHTSA’s claim that the tank is vulnerable.

        What the study doesn’t discuss, and what these articles should, is that they’re arguing over 1 fatality per Million Registered Vehicle Years v. 0.5 fatality per MRVY due to rear impact crash related fires. In 2007, the average number of fatalities per MRVY for medium sized 4×4 SUVs was 59. They’re talking about a recall over a fraction of 1, without discussing whether or not the Jeeps have higher overall fatality rates than their peer vehicles. This is just the Stalinists of the O***a regime flexing their muscles again. They must want to influence Fiat’s behavior in some way.

  • avatar

    Your facts about the Pinto case are wrong, and only perpetuate an old myth.

    The “Pinto Memo” was a general letter written to the NHTSA about proposed legislation and mostly focused on rollover fires; it was not used as a design guideline.

    The NHTSA didn’t even think a recall was necessary initially. The 27 deaths attributed to Pinto rear-end collisions was the same as from a transmission problem it had. This was not out of line from other vehicles.

    After 1977, the Pinto did not sell ‘in much smaller numbers’. It dropped by an average of 11% per year after 1976 – just like many aging nameplates.

    Year Units
    1971 352,402
    1972 480,405
    1973 484,512
    1974 544,209
    1975 223,763
    1976 290,132
    1977 225,097
    1978 188,899
    1979 199,018
    1980 185,054

    The GM C/K10 trucks had a minimum of 155 fiery deaths from their sidesaddle gas tanks (5x the Pinto), yet the tanks far exceeded requirements of the time.

    Chrysler knows a witch hunt when they see one, and I think they’re right to stand up to it.

    • 0 avatar

      gslippy is right, the Ford Pinto information in the article is not accurate and is simply a myth.

    • 0 avatar

      I guess thats useful to know for those who’re in the market for a Pinto, but otherwise I think the articles formatting is a bigger issue, it needs more indenting rather than being text walls on-top of one another.

    • 0 avatar

      Solid stuff, gslippy. Thank you for the contribution.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree. While I don’t like to think I have gone off half cocked on something like this, and perhaps I have, it is nice to be answered by a well reasoned, authoritative response. Part of free speech is the freedom to be wrong so that a person’s incorrect ideas or interpretations can be exposed and corrected. It makes for a “teachable moment.” I appreciate how this was done without any vitriol and I stand corrected.

        Part of my mistake was going back to the original reporting when I did my research. Looking for a later analysis may have shown me that the original report had some flaws. At the time, however, I sought out the source reports because I figured it would be closest to what really happened.

        Regardless of my mistake, my final thesis stands. Chrysler is going to get hammered by this, they may well win the battle but lose the war of public perception. In the end, John Q Public will always think of these cars hand in hand with fiery death, the way most of us remember the Pinto.

        • 0 avatar

          Without your article, the B&B would have never seen gslippy’s analysis.

          There has been a lot of volatile responses to authors as of late, and the culprits need to understand that snide, ego stroking remarks are not value added… to anyone. Progression from a posted topic enlightens us all.

          I agree with your final thesis. Toyota paid the piper to keep their image polished. Witch hunts are unavoidable when government entities are involved – they have to justify their existence somehow, and I’ll never fully understand that mindset.

          • 0 avatar


            I’m a big fan of TK.

            There are a few wealthy young weenies here who contribute articles effervescing in glib humor and sparkling with gems from privileged access to every manner of vehicle. That’s cool.

            But Kreutzer has paid his own way through life and has therefore a gravitas and humane compassion that only manning up to hard choices with no guardian angels can provide.

            I think this article is morally and psychologically dead on. Any factual anomaly only shows that reporting, and by extension history, are damn hard to do.

          • 0 avatar

            Truth is, I don’t like being wrong. When I am, it’s nice to be corrected in a way that educates me instead of castigates me. I think gslippy did a great job presenting the facts and his response struck just the right chord. I really admire ow he did that, it’s a lot easier to just say “gotcha!”

            I’ll try to be more careful in he future, but if I miss the mark a bit, I know you’ve got my back.

  • avatar

    The recall for the most part is bs,especially for the older ones.For the 2000my and up,just fix the damn things and be done with it.Again I have to say,if the nhtsb is so damned concerned about safety,have chrysler fix the spit-back problems once and for all.

  • avatar

    I don’t understand why the wrangler is not included, since in my TJ the gas tank is about 3 inches from the back bumper!

    I don’t know but I would think that the wrangler would be worst than the liberty or the GC.

    But I do agree with CHRYCO

    • 0 avatar

      JK has the tank in the middle and is jacked up quite a bit over TJ. Anyone can submarine in when T-boning. Maybe we all should switch to vertical stack exhausts.

    • 0 avatar

      The TJ Wrangler has a fully boxed frame vs. the unitized bodies of the Grand Cherokee and Liberty. TJ Wrangler also has a more robust skidplate than the Grand or the Libby from the factory, although not robust enough for serious rockhoppers.

      Those two things could by why Wrangler doesn’t suffer from this problem.

  • avatar

    1 million plus Jeeps burning can’t be good for the environment. I think the Gov needs a new program to remedy this. Cash for Burners. 1ok cash and a cellphone for any Jeep owner who trades it in on a new car. Double if an EV is purchased.

  • avatar
    April 5

    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.

  • avatar

    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 .

    • 0 avatar

      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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