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The World’s Worst Car?

The Book of Heroic Failures (a very popular and funny collection of spectacular failures and epic fails) quite naturally has an entry for the worst car ever. The (dis)honours in that book go to the Ford Edsel. And the Ford Edsel is certainly a bit of a dog. It was a gas-guzzler that came out just as a recession was hitting. The design of the front end was downright peculiar and the car itself wasn’t overly reliable. And then there was the name – naming a vehicle after the offspring of the company founder might have worked for Mercedes Benz (Mercedes was the name of Daimler’s daughter) but didn’t work when they tried naming this one after Edsel, son of Henry Ford Junior.

However, Ford Edsels are still knocking around and are considered classic collector’s items. After all, the cars were slightly notorious. However, they are still around to be collected. The same cannot be said for another contender for the title of Worst Car Ever, the Ford Pinto.


It is something of a tribute to all the other Ford cars that the company survived both of these spectacular failures. Having produced two such dogs (or lemons) would have ruined a lesser company.


But the Pinto! Regular readers of this blog will have noticed the Pinto turning up in the list of the (possibly) ugliest cars and the cars with the silliest names. The ugliness of the Pinto is, of course, debateable, and some people might like that rather interesting and slightly pointy back end. And an awful lot of people don’t. And the name is also unfortunate. My guess is that the designers of the Pinto were thinking of the horses, keeping this car in line with the Mustang. Horse-lovers, of course, know that “pinto” is the American name for a piebald or skewbald horse (black and white or brown and white for those who aren’t horsey) and they were really popular with Native Americans, so you’ve got a bit of a Wild West touch. However, because the name derives from the Spanish word for “paint” (because the horses look like they’ve had large blobs of white paint chucked at them), it’s also the name of a type of bean that also has a two-tone colour job. And it’s the Spanish for “pint”. In Portuguese, however, it means something different again – it’s the word for a willy, and I don’t mean the company that first came out with Jeeps.


But a bad name and debateable looks aren’t the utter kiss of death for a car. Ugliness is debateable and a car with a bad name can be perfectly reliable and efficient. But being dangerous is unforgiveable. And this is why the Ford Pinto really should have the title of Worst Car Ever. The Ford Edsel’s mechanical foibles pale by comparison beside what the Pinto could do.


It’s all in that sloping back end. You see, the design of the back end meant that if the Pinto was rear-ended – possibly one of the most common types of accident – the fuel tank would be shoved forwards and bits of it would break off, meaning that it was more likely to burst into flames in an accident. The sloping back end meant that the fuel tank didn’t have an awful lot of protection at the rear – not much of a bumper and absolutely no crumple zones. This is one reason why you don’t see too many Ford Pintos as collectors’ items: a lot of them exploded and ended up on the scrap heap.

The true ugliness of the Ford Pinto was revealed when a corporate document about this car was leaked to the public. You see, the heads of Ford at that time had become aware that this design flaw turned the Pinto into a death trap. And then they did a nasty piece of accounting where they weighed up the costs of recalling and repairing the vehicles versus the cost of paying compensation when drivers and passengers were burned alive – and found that compensation was cheaper so they decided to go with that (A copy of the original exposee is available here). A recall was forced on them eventually and the company was hauled into court with one heck of a lawsuit that the infamous cost–benefit analysis hadn’t quite factored in (full details on this website).


Ford survived and Ford has cleaned up its reputation since then. The Model T, the Anglia, the Mustang, the Thunderbird, the Escort and others remained popular. And Ford Europe and Ford Australia didn’t go near the Pinto. So Ford everywhere survived.


In many ways, the Ford Fiesta took the place of the Pinto shortly after a major lawsuit, becoming the compact economy model that had been the original aim behind the Pinto. Modern Fiestas got 5 stars out of 5 in the ANCAP safety tests.