The High Flying Ford Pinto

There are a plethora of automobile stories I could have discussed in this post. Theres one where in the 1800s the only two cars in the entire state of Ohio crashed into each other. Theres also the story of the first speeding ticket which was given for going 8 miles an hour (a blazing 3 miles over the legal limit).

Yes, there are plenty of car stories to tell, but none, and I mean NONE, are so compelling and preposterous as that of The Ford Pinto’s.

Nothing even comes close.

It was the 1960s and small foreign auto imports were becoming popular in America. Up until this point in time U.S. car makers were only producing large cars. In order to compete with the increasingly popular Japanese imports they decided to produce some smaller cars.

Lee Iacocca, President of Ford at the time, demanded that a car be produced for less than $2000 while also weighing less than 2000 pounds.

A new player entered the game: The Ford Pinto.

Ford Pinto 1

Marketed as “The Little Carefree Car”, The Ford Pinto (aka “The Bean You Can Drive”) contained a 4 cylinder engine. It’s main competition in the small car market were the Volkswagen Beetle, the Toyota Corolla, and the Hyundai Civic.

It went on sale on September 11th, 1970 (An Omen if I ever saw one).

When first released the only body style available was a trunked fastback coupe. A hatchback soon became available on February 20th, 1971, and by January of 1971 the Pinto had sold over 100,000 units.

352,000 Pintos were sold for the entire 1972 production run.

And 544,000 Pintos were sold in 1974, there largest production year.

One cause for the quick popularity of the Pinto was the gas crisis in the 1970s.

Up until then, Americans were used to getting 30 cents a gallon for gasoline.

gas prices pinto

*Author’s Note: The lucky bastards didn’t know how good they had it.*

Because gas had been so plentiful, American car manufacturers had never had to deal with dropping weight in the vehicle in order to increase gas mileage.

Consequently, The Ford Pinto contained a major and potentially disastrous design flaw.

*Author’s Note: Here’s where it gets good.* 

The car had no classic heavyweight bumper, and there was  little reinforcement between the rear panel and the gas tank.

Because of this, if the Pinto was rear ended it was far too easy for the fuel tank to rupture. A rather minor collision had the potential to rupture the fuel tank. Even worse the fuel tank could be driven into the differential, and punctured by the bolts which held it in place.

Thats not just some little flaw. The Pinto was essentially a Bumperless Bomb. 

Oh, and the doors were also known to easily jam after an accident due to poor structural design.

So, it was designed, when rear ended, to catch on fire and explode while also jamming the doors shut trapping you inside.

All for under $2000!

Ford was FULLY aware of the construction problems.

A stolen copy of a memo sent out to all of the senior management at the Ford Motor Company was later published describing just how much Ford knew about the problems with the Pinto.

I won’t bore you with the minutia of the memo , so I’ll list the relevant details from it.

  1. Ford believed they were going to sell 11 million Ford Pintos.
  2. It would cost $11 to fix the problem with the bumper on each car. ($11 per unit)
  3. If they were to go ahead with a total recall it would cost them around $135 million.

Simple enough right? Just pay the money and make the car safer for the customer.

Instead, Ford decided to do some further calculations.

  1. They estimated that a total of around 2,100 Ford Pintos might be involved in accidents.
  2. Of those accidents there may be around 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries, and 2,100 burned out vehicles.
  3. Assuming out of court settlements, Ford anticipated that they would pay $200,000 per burn death, $67,000 per burn injury, and $700 per burned out vehicle.
  4. Assuming all of these costs, Ford anticipated they would pay roughly $49.53 million.

Allowing the accidents to occur ensured Ford a net savings of a modest $70 million.

As a result of their calculations Ford determined mathematically that a human life was worth less than $11.


It wasn’t until the publication of the stolen memo that Ford finally conducted a recall in 1978 in which they installed a plastic shield to fix the problem.

So you might be asking yourself, “Where is this dummy going with all this? That was a good car story, but I’m sure there are better ones.”

WRONG. I just got to the good part.

In 1971 Advanced Vehicle Engineers was founded by Henry Smolinski and his best friend Hal Blake for the sole purpose of designing and building…


You’re never going to believe the car they used.

The concept was simple. They would take a regular car and a small airplane and weld that shit together. This way a regular joe like you or me could drive the car to an airport, fit it  with the wings, take off from the runway, soar through the skies, land at your desired destination, take off the wings, and drive off on our merry way.

They cut up a Cessna Skymaster and a Ford Pinto and fitted them together.

The result was thus: 

pinto 2

Only 4 pins were used to combine the Pinto with the wings. The drivers controls were adapted so the driver/pilot could control the airframe by steering the wheel, and the Pinto’s dashboard was fitted with numerous flight instruments, gauges, gyros, radio navigation equipment and more.

In the air the craft had a cruising speed of 130 mph, a range of 1000+ miles, and a ceiling (height limit) of 12000 feet.

On an early flight test done in 1973, the right wing mounting attachment failed causing a premature landing in a bean field (admire the beautiful beautiful irony). Upon crash landing, the pilot simply drove it back to the testing facility.

In one of the numerous press conferences held about the development of the flying car, Smolinski (the inventor of the craft) lauded the simplicity of the combination, claiming that it was so easy even a woman could do it. A mighty claim indeed.

On September 11th, 1973 (Yup, definitely an Omen) the pilot who normally flew the craft was not available for the scheduled test flight. So, Smolinski and Blake decided to take his place and fly it themselves.

About 2 minutes after take off the crafts right wing folded in causing The Pinto to fall, strike the top of a tree, crash into a pickup truck, and explode vigorously.

Both inventors died in the fiery mayhem that enveloped the Flying Pinto.

The Coroner was unable to tell what exactly had killed the men; smoke inhalation, the explosion, or the impact.

One thing for certain though was that all three were very much at play.

And thus ends the story of the Ford Pinto, the Flying Car that almost was.




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