Henry Ford II has said for the first time publicly that "there's some cause for the concern" over alleged safety problems with Pinto fuel tanks.
In an interview in the Sept. 11 issue of Fortune Magazine, which was released yesterday, Ford said "the lawyers would shoot me for saying this, but I think there is some cause for the concern about the car. I don't even listen to the cost figures - we've got to fix it."
Meanwhile, Ford also sent a sharply-worded reply to Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who last week accused him of being insensitive to the growing number of deaths and injuries reportedly attributed to Pinto fuel tank safety problems.
Nader was critical of the length of time it was taking Ford to recall the cars and correct the problems. Ford had agreed to recall the cars last June, after press and consumer reports about leaks and fires allegedly caused by faulty gas tanks.
On Wednesday, the company agreed to pay $600,000 in an out-of-court settlement to a 7-year-old Virginia boy whose parents died in a fiery Pinto crash in 1973. There are several other lawsuits pending against Ford over the gas tank issue.
But Ford's letter objected to Nader's attack on his personal integrity. "Personal attacks hardly seem to be the appropriate way to achieve the results we are all looking for," Ford wrote.
Although the company agreed in June to recall 1.5 million Pintos and Mercury Bobcats proced from 1971 to 1976, Ford has never publicly acknowledged any safety defects involving the fuel tank, prior to the Fortune interview.
In Detroit, yesterday, though, Ford Motor Company spokesman Jerry Sloan said Henry Ford's comments did not represent any change in the company's position, and that the company has always voiced "concern" over the controversy.
Ford's letter to Nader came in response to a letter the consumer advocate sent to him last week. In that letter, Nader accused the company of acting irresponsibly in efforts to correct reported problems with the Pinto fuel tanks with what Nader called a "cheap technical fix."
Nader pointed out that the fix proposed by Ford to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had proved inadequate. Shortly, after the letter was released, NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook said that a later round of tests indicated that revised fixes proposed by Ford appeared to provide adequate protection against fuel tank leaks and fires due to crashes.
Ford said in his letter, "I strongly object in your charges and insinuations that the company has acted irresponsibly in developing these improvements for earlier model Pintos and Bobcats. The Pinto and Bobcat recall campaign is a matter of great concern to Ford Motor Co. and to me personally."
Reached by telephone yesterday, Nader said, "This is the first expression of concern that Henry Ford has made regarding the Pinto fuel tank problem since 1971. There's nothing like a top executive being held personally responsible in order to get the giant company under him moving toward meeting its long overdue safety obligations."
"The first Henry Ford (founder of the company) would have understood this point instinctively," Nader said. "It's time this Henry Ford took charge in rounding up the Pintos and returning them to their stables for repair."
Nader said that although the more recent proposed repairs by Ford appeared "a little better," he still felt that overall the company is only proposing an "inadequate technical fix."