Ford Pinto Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Ford Pinto

What happened to the Ford Pinto? Ford Motor Company had intended to compete with other automobiles on the market that were smaller and used less gas. But something went terribly wrong along the way. This paper explores the details that led ultimately to the demise of the Ford Pinto -- and to the deaths and injuries of innocent consumers.

Why was the Pinto developed in the first place? Ford Motor Company was seeing strong competition from Volkswagen -- and from other compact-style cars such as the Chevrolet Vega, AMC's Gremlin, the Dodge Colt and Plymouth Cricket -- in the late 1960s, and the company wanted to get into that market. The television commercial that Ford produced opened up with a wide angle shot of a lush green open field. In that field is a very cute pinto colt that stands up a bit shakily. "Meet the Pinto," the male voice announces. "Just born." The pinto bounds forward in slow motion. As the camera pans along with the bounding colt, the Ford Pinto comes into full view (YouTube).

"Pinto, the new little carefree car from Ford. Drives like a small economy import, but you'd never know that to look at it." The narrator explains that the car gets 25 miles per gallon, "But it's frisky," he adds. "With a wider stance than any little import, so you won't be pushed around by the wind." As the commercial ends, the automobile is riding in the background while the pinto colt gallops in the foreground, in sync with the car. "Pinto, a little carefree car to put a little kick on your life," the announcer continues.

What consumers didn't know as they watched the television commercial, was the "little kick" the advertising extolled turned out to be a deadly blast for many unsuspecting drivers. But those details will come later in the paper. The last written (and spoken) words on the screen are eerily linked to a horrendous even that would happen in the future: "Coming September 11."

What were some of the successes of the Pinto?

First of all, Ford built many thousands of Pintos in the years between 1971 and 1980. In 1971 Ford built 352,402; in 1972 Ford built 480,405; in 1973 Ford built 484,512; 1974 was the year Ford built the most Pintos (544,209). The numbers tapered off after 1974 due to the bad publicity and slower sales. In all, Ford produced about 3.5 million Pintos, according to the Encyclopedia of American Cars (

The Pinto came in 15 colors, including "Model T. Black," and it went through an impressive primer solution application with "an electrostatic charge" that allowed application of paint with better adhesion" (Consumer Guide). By 1971, "California dealers were reporting sales" of the Pinto that equaled "17.8% of all import sales," and Ford was eager to cut into imports (Consumer Guide). Customers loved the Pinto and in less than five months Ford had delivered 100,000 Pintos (the 100,000th was delivered to S & C. Motors in San Francisco.

Describe the company culture that led to the scandal

In the 1960s, Ford's Lee Iacocca -- executive vice president in charge of Ford's North American Vehicle Operations -- was already a powerful force with the company because he had been the lead person in the development of the Ford Mustang, a hugely popular car. By 1967, many felt that Iacocca was next in line to become president of Ford, but when that position came open, "Henry Ford II surprised nearly everyone in the industry" by choosing Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen. Knudsen had worked for General Motors and was not at all in sync with Iacocca, according to Consumer Guide.

The tension between the two executives was obvious to others working at Ford. "Cold shoulders were commonplace on the upper floors" of the Ford building in Dearborn, Michigan, and moreover, the new president was totally opposed to building a subcompact car (Consumer Guide). It was Iacocca's idea that the company needed to build a car to compete with imported cars, and Iacocca pushed hard to talk Henry Ford II into going ahead with the Pinto. In 1969, Henry Ford II agreed to build the Pinto, and soon thereafter Iacocca got the real prize he coveted, the presidency of Ford.

According to Robert Sherefkin, writing in Automotive News, Iacocca had not had a lot of experience working on new car designs, starting from scratch (Sherefkin, 2003, p. 1). Sherefkin adds that Iacocca had a "don't-bother-me-with-trifles haughtiness toward technicians," and moreover, Iacocca was in a big hurry to get the Pinto into the market. Iacocca wanted Pintos in showrooms for the 1971 model year, and he pushed everyone at Ford to get the car ready in "…just 25 months, when the normal time span was 43 months" (Sherefkin, p. 2).

The hurried window of time meant that the tooling for the Pinto was being developed at precisely the same time as "product development"; it was "alleged," Sherefkin continues, that when Ford engineers discovered a "…serious defect in the gasoline tank, it was too late" because the tooling process was well down the road by that time. As to that tooling process, which may not be familiar to most consumers, it has reportedly played a big part in the scandal.

To wit, the Mother Jones article that actually brought the issue of the unsafe gas tank dynamics -- and the fiery deaths suffered by some Pinto owners -- to national attention was published in 1977. Its author, Mark Dowie, explained that when it comes to the development process which any new car goes through, there are several components of the car's evolution that are flexible. Those components include the design, the styling, the product planning, the quality assurance and advanced engineering. These aspects of a car's development can be carried out "simultaneously," Dowie writes on page 4 of the Mother Jones article. But the tooling process "…has a fixed time frame of about 18 months," and in most cases an automobile company "…doesn't begin tooling until the other processes are almost over," Dowie continues. Why? Because "…you don't want to make the machines that stamp and press and grind metal into the shape of car parts until you know those parts will work well together," Dowie explains (4).

That having been pointed out, Dowie asserts that "…Iacocca's speed-up meant Pinto tooling went on at the same time as product development," so when Ford initiated crash tests on the new car, and those tests "…revealed a serious defect in the gas tank, it was too late. The tooling was well under way" (4). If any engineer at Ford had questioned the gas tank issue and challenged Iacocca in that sense, "That person would have been fired," according to an engineer who agreed to speak to Dowie but needed to remain anonymous. "Safety wasn't a popular subject around Ford in those days," the unnamed engineer told Dowie.

"With Lee it was taboo. Whenever a problem was raised that meant a delay on the Pinto, Lee would chomp on his cigar, look out the window, and say, 'Read the product objectives and get back to work'" (Dowie, 5). In fact, Iacocca was to obsessive about keeping the weight of the Pinto under 2,000 pounds he "enforced these limits with an iron hand," the engineer continued. So even though the crash test showed that a "…one-pound, one-dollar piece of plastic stopped the puncture of the gas tank, it was thrown out as extra cost and extra weight" (Dowie, 5).

And so this is a brief sketch of the company culture at Ford Motor Company at the time the Pinto was built and introduced to the American car-buying public.

Describe the organization using Schein's definition of organizational culture

In Schein's approach, the culture of an organization like the Ford Motor Company should have a goal of achieving consensus on goals through "…shared assumptions." And Schein makes it clear that the consensus on goals must have "an end point" but the "mission" of the work culture is "timeless." The mission of Ford is of course to produce cars that will sell and that people will like; but the goal in this case was to get the Pinto out on the market soon, very soon, to compete with the other sub-compacts and foreign autos on the market. In order to achieve the goals under Schein's theory there is a need for consensus or else "behavioral regularities" will not be in place.

In fact though Ford engineers discovered in "…pre-production crash tests that rear-end collisions would rupture the Pinto's fuel system extremely easily" (Dowie, p. 2). And knowing that the gas tank can explode Ford's lawyers lobbied "…with extraordinary vigor and some blatant lies, against a government safety standard" that would have in fact made Ford change the gas tank (Dowie, 2). This went against Schein's theory; behavioral irregularities were the name of the game as Ford was in denial and lied to consumers. Schein explains that there should…

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