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How A Faulty Car Design Changed Fuel Tanks

In 1970, an attempt by one of the biggest automobile manufacturers in the world to create a small car to compete with the rest of the world became one of the most infamous disasters in the history of motoring, but one that also changed the course of fuel tanks and the vacuum relief valve beyond the realm of the car.

The Ford Pinto was designed as an answer to the increased popularity of the Datsun 510, the Toyota Corolla and Ford’s own Cortina manufactured in Europe. It was designed exceptionally quickly, with a 25-month turnaround time that was the then-shortest production schedule in the history of car manufacturing.

As a result of this, the fuel tank, typically placed in the middle of the car in front of the back wheels, was instead placed directly at the back of the car. This was a relatively standard placement at the time and would ordinarily not cause any issues if not for the smaller size of the Pinto.

This meant that the only protection for the fuel tank in the event of a rear-end collision was a bumper later described as “essentially ornamental”. The result was that the car’s fuel tank would rupture, often causing a fire but in some cases would even explode.

It later emerged through several lawsuits and an expose by Mother Jones Magazine that Ford was aware of this issue as early as 1968, with several solutions proposed including using the fuel tank design from the Ford Capri that was already safer and less exposed, or installing tank shields to at least prevent the tanks rupturing.

Neither decision was made, allegedly because of a cost-benefit analysis that claimed it would be cheaper for Ford to settle and pay the damages from any lawsuit rather than make any late-stage alterations.

This led to an infamous awarding by a California Judge of $125m (£110.7m) in punitive damages based on the fact that Ford knew their car was defective and potentially dangerous, although the actual figure was reduced to £3.5m on appeal.

This entire controversy and the deaths that resulted led to fundamental changes in fuel tank safety, both for cars and for more general storage tanks and silos.