By Tim Bean
*Author’s note: Although I had no difficulties in uncovering details of the Ford Pinto’s rise and fall, it took much longer to find the names of the three Hoosier girls who perished in the 1978 accident. That’s not right. I hope their family knows people still care.
August 10th, 1978. Goshen, Indiana.
On their way to a church volleyball practice, the three girls—sisters Lyn (16) and Judy Ulrich (18), and their cousin Donna Ulrich (18)—chugged along U.S. 33 in a dusty 1973 Ford Pinto.
They had just filled up the Pinto’s gas tank, but when driver Judy Ulrich peeked in her rearview mirror, she noticed the gas cap cover yawning wide open and remembered leaving the gas cap on the car’s trunk, but not putting it back. She flicked on her hazard lights and nudged the car to the shoulder, hoping that the cap hadn’t tumbled off yet.
Behind them, 21-year-old Richard Dugger attempted to light a cigarette as he cruised along 33 in a two-ton van. He pursed his lips, bringing the lighter close, but the cigarette tumbled from his mouth and onto the van’s floor. He cursed and leaned down awkwardly, his eyes darting from the road to the floor mat. Dugger’s left hand remained on the steering wheel, while his right feverishly groped for the cigarette on the carpet.
His fingers closed around it, but when he sat back up a second later, it was too late. The Ford Pinto that had been a safe distance ahead now filled his windshield, its yellow flashers glaring. He stomped the brake pedal automatically and uselessly.
The 4,000 pound van tore into the rear of the Pinto, hitting it like a flying anvil. The subcompact car’s rear end and the oily sweetness of gas fogged the scene. The Pinto lurched into the air and landed askew, with one tire in the weeds and the other on the road. Duggar kicked his door open and jumped onto the road, his shoes crunching on broken glass, and called out to the Pinto’s passengers.
Duggar coughed, tasting the slick gas on his tongue. “Hey! Are you guys—”
The pooled gas surrounding the Pinto exploded with a flat WHAPP! transforming the car into a cauldron of fire, gas, and metal. Dugger staggered back. He pasted his fingers over his face against the wall of heat. Then he heard them pounding against the crumpled Pinto doors, now welding tightly closed with the impact.
Dugger took a few weak steps before falling to his knees behind the car and scooting back. The heat now singed his hair and clothes. He couldn’t get closer. There was nothing he could do to help the girls trapped inside. Richard Duggar could only listen and weep at the side of the Indiana highway on that August evening.
Donna and Lyn Ulrich died within seconds inside the Pinto, while Judy succumbed to her injuries at a nearby hospital the next day, just after recounting the accident to police.
Six months later, Judy and Lyn’s mother, Mattie Ulrich, received a mailed notice from the Ford Motor Company: a design flaw in the fuel-system left their 1973 Ford Pinto prone to gas tank explosions in rear-end collisions.
The Ford Pinto: The Little Carefree Car
In 1968, Lee Iacocca, legendary automotive innovator and then-president of Ford Motor Company, announced he wanted two things for the company new subcompact, later named the Ford Pinto: it would weigh less than one ton and cost less than $2,000 dollars.
These were bold demands since Ford had not made vehicles that light since 1907. And $2,000 for a brand new car..? Ford designers threw themselves into the task, prioritizing far above safety concerns adhering to Iacocca’s famous—now infamous—quote “Safety doesn’t sell.”
Ford designers and engineers managed to design, build, test, and deliver this revolutionary Ford model in just over two years, roughly half the average time for a design-to-delivery timeline for a new American auto model. Iacocca didn’t acknowledge this as efficiency as much as necessity: the popularity of foreign subcompact cars like the Volkswagen Beetle and Datsun Bluebird had left US automakers in the dust. Ford discovered both AMC and GM had subcompact models in development (the AMC Gremlin and Chevrolet Vega) and refused to fall behind. Iacocca micromanaged the project (nicknamed “Lee’s Car”) obsessively to ensure the Pinto would reach the American market in record time. It did.
On September 11th, 1970, Ford introduced the Pinto to the public as a “carefree” alternative to the lumbering and expensive American autos of its day. The Pinto’s style and design was uniquely European, with a peppy four-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive, and bucket seats. The basic model cost $1,850 (approx. $11,000 in 2019), comfortably under Iacocca’s price point and it weighed only 2,015 pounds, a featherweight in American autos.
Within four months, Ford sold over 100,000 Pintos, and it became one of the company’s best-selling cars, dominating the domestic subcompact market. During the model’s entire run, from 1971 to 1980, Ford sold over 3.1 million Pintos. By any reckoning, “Lee’s Car” was a success. Until it wasn’t.
“Safety Doesn’t Sell”
The Pinto’s most egregious design flaw resided in the the fuel tank placement. Ford designers nestled it between the rear axle and flimsy rear bumper, almost guaranteeing any slow-speed fender bender could result in a tank rupture. The filler neck, traveling from beneath the gas cap to the gas tank tore easily, rending a nearly two-inch hole in the sheet metal and sloshing volatile fuel beneath the car. Surrounding the gas tank were a half dozen puncture points in the guise of bolts.
The spacious rear of the Ford Pinto came at a cost as well. In a rear end collision, the empty space caused the entire back third of the car to crumple, wedging the body and frame tightly against the car doors, making them virtually impossible to open. And if there was a fire, gaps in the Pinto’s floor allowed flames to quickly reach up into the car’s passenger compartment.
The solution? Roughly $10-15 worth of parts and labor per Pinto.
Iacocca’s demands had created a very dangerous automobile, then left it on the market for nearly a decade. And the “Pinto Memo” proved Ford knew it as early as 1973.
The “Pinto Memo”: The Unkindest Math of All
In 1973, Ford’s Environmental and Safety Engineering Department released an inter-office memo entitled “Fatalities Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires”, to voice the company’s efforts to block increased fuel system requirements. Later known as “The Pinto Memo”, this communication included ALL passenger cars and light trucks in its calculations, which brought the infamous term cost-benefit analysis into the public arena.
Authors E.S. Grush and C.S. Saunby (supported by Ford engineers J.D. Hromi and R.B. MacLean) estimated that recalling and modifying ALL current passenger cars and light trucks to meet proposed NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) fuel-system regulations would cost approximately $11 per vehicle, for a total cost of $137 million. A hefty sum, even if shared by all American automakers.
But what if they just didn’t do it? Grush and Saunby estimated the projected costs of litigation and settlements if safety improvements were not implemented (ascribing a value of $200,000 to a human life) and predicted a total cost of $50 million. Their conclusion is as clear as it is cold, and the memo ended with this unambiguous position: “…the implementation costs far outweigh the expected benefits.“
To paraphrase (only very slightly), it was more cost-effective for the auto industry to forgo fuel safety improvements and let passengers burn.
Indiana v. Ford Motor Co.
Elkhart County prosecutors, armed with the “Pinto Memo” and the tragedy of the Ulrich girls, went after Ford Motor Company, but not in civil court. They leveled three counts of reckless homicide against Ford Motor Company in Indiana v. Ford Motor Co, putting them in a criminal court. It was a first for Ford Motors and the entire nation.
While the Elkhart County prosecutors worked with a minuscule budget ($20,000) and a legal lineup composed mostly of volunteers, Ford Motors spared no expense.
They hired one of the nation’s top trial lawyers, James F. Neal, to spearhead Ford’s defense. Neal soared into court with a million dollar budget and a staff of eighty professionals. Ford had wealth, experience, and legal precedence on their side.
What they did not have was public sentiment.
Make no mistake: Ford Motor Company was scared to death. A corporate entity cannot logistically face jail time, and the maximum fine for reckless homicide in Indiana in 1978 was $80,000, a fraction of the defense’s budget. But if found guilty, the legal precedent would forever alter corporate America, bringing product liability law, and negligence, into the world of criminal law. American companies would answer to federal regulations in both civil and criminal settings. The executives of one of America’s largest companies foresaw a dismal future with their heads on chopping blocks. Even in the best circumstances, Indiana v. Ford Motor Co. had the potential to bind corporate America in a straitjacket of red tape.
A landmark case, no doubt.
James Neal’s strategy wasn’t to directly defend the Pinto, or even dwell on the Ulrich girls or Dugger’s liability. Instead, Neal focused on two issues: first, the impropriety of bringing a civil case into a criminal court; second, the Pinto itself was no more dangerous than any other American subcompact on the road in the late 1970s. This hung Ford’s case on the fallacy tu quoque (meaning “you also”—an appeal to hypocrisy, two wrong do not make a right, or, in simpler terms, “They’re doing it so why can’t I?”).
The outcome came as no surprise. Elkhart County prosecutors fought their hardest, but outgunning Ford’s legal dreadnought was a battle lost before begun. Ford was found not guilty to the delight of its legal team, executives, and stockholders. In 1980, the company magnanimously agreed to a settlement of $7500 for each of the Ulrich girls, paying the small sum to a family that no doubt simply wanted to put the travesty behind them.
No Concluding the Controversy
Ford Motor Company won the case, but it never completely regained the trust of the American people. Its hearty but heartless defense in Indiana v. Ford Motor Co., and the irrefutable contents of the “Pinto Memo,” portrayed the entire American automotive industry as a soulless engine of greed and profit, betraying its image as the lifeblood of America. It took decades for Ford to repair the damage and even today, it has never again achieved its status of the 50s and 60s.
Ford initiated a “voluntary recall” of the Ford Pinto soon after the trial, but the public saw this as both an admission of guilt and an effort to prevent further lawsuits. Sales of the Ford Pinto had slowed but not slumped, but Ford executives decided the best strategy was to distance itself from “Lee’s Car.” 1980 marked the last year of Pinto manufacture.
Even today, the case remains controversial. Ford defenders decry the case as a parade of media bias, villainization, and legal overstepping. Detractors insist the case demonstrates willful negligence, with the trial’s outcome resulting from cash resources, not righteousness. It is a heated argument and one that resonates now more than ever.
But that’s all trivial now to the three Ulrich girls. Media wars, settlements, legal precedence, and safety inspections don’t mean anything now. The entire auto industry could collapse, and it wouldn’t matter. Those frivolous things ended on an Indiana highway in 1978. There’s only the memories of their short but happy lives in the minds of their family and friends.
After spending weeks with this story, deciding how to end it was nearly impossible. I cannot imagine the grief of the girls’ family, then and now, and don’t presume any dedication or sentiment of mine would mean more than the flashing cursor proceeding it.
Want to Know More?
In case you missed the above link, here’s the infamous “Pinto Memo”. If you don’t read anything else in this article, READ THAT.
The “Pinto Memo” inspired the Mother Jones expose “Pinto Madness”, published a year before the Ulrich girls’ accident.
This Automotive News article “Lee Iacocca’s Pinto: A Fiery Failure” blames the Ford Pinto’s defects on Iacocca’s fixation to produce a low-cost, low-weight car in record time.
In “Is Pinto a Criminal?” American legal scholar Richard A. Epstein argued Indiana v. Ford Motor Co. should have remained solely within the realm of civil, not criminal, action.