The safety record of the Ford Pinto has become a landmark narrative on the evils of amoral companies putting profit ahead of customer safety. The articles and news stories about the Pinto released at the time generally portray the car as more prone to fire than other cars of the time. They also portray Ford as callous for knowingly and willfully ignoring safety concerns. More recent retrospective analysis of the car, the reports, the NHTSA and Ford's internal actions suggest the common knowledge understanding and reporting of the events is mistaken.
Through early production of the model, it became a focus of a major scandal when it was alleged that the car's design allowed its fuel tank to be easily damaged in the event of a rear-end collision which sometimes resulted in deadly fires and explosions. Critics argued that the vehicle's lack of a true rear bumper as well as any reinforcing structure between the rear panel and the tank, meant that in certain collisions, the tank would be thrust forward into the differential, which had a number of protruding bolts that could puncture the tank. This, and the fact that the doors could potentially jam during an accident (due to poor reinforcing) allegedly made the car less safe than its contemporaries.
Ford allegedly was aware of this design flaw but refused to pay what was characterized as the minimal expense of a redesign. Instead, it was argued, Ford decided it would be cheaper to pay off possible lawsuits for resulting deaths.
Mother Jones magazine obtained the cost-benefit analysis that it said Ford had used to compare the cost of an $11 ($56 today, allowing for inflation) repair against the monetary value of a human life, in what became known as the Ford Pinto memo. The characterization of Ford's design decision as gross disregard for human lives in favor of profits led to significant lawsuits. While Ford was acquitted of criminal charges, it lost several million dollars and gained a reputation for manufacturing "the barbecue that seats four." Nevertheless, as a result of this identified problem, Ford initiated a callback which provided a dealer installable "safety kit" that installed some plastic protective material over the offending sharp objects, negating the risk of tank puncture."