Auto-safety proponents continue to twist the arm of Uncle Sam for the recall of 20 million or more Ford Motor Company cars and light trucks because of what they charge is a faulty transmission which can plop from "park" into "reverse" if a vehicle is left unattended and running.
Now, in its June issue, Mother Jones, a California-based monthly magazine that blew the whistle on the Ford Pinto subcompact in 1977, charges that so far 70 fatalities have resulted from the transmission in more than 3,700 separate mishaps.
In addition, more than 1,100 have been injured, says the magazine.
At the same time, the federal government's automotive investigative arm, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has been probing the matter for the past several years and so far has been unable to make up its mind in the case.
Leading the call for a massive recall -- which, if ordered, would be the largest and most costly in history -- are consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, and Mother Jones.
Ford is said to have known of the problem as early as 1971 and decided to do nothing about it. The cost at the time would have been no more than 3 cents per car, according to the magazine.
It was a 1977 story in Mother Jones which led to a Ford recall of 1.5 million Pinto subcompact cars to make adjustments to the fuel-tank system. An Indiana jury recently decided in favor of Ford in a criminal case involving the fatal burning of three young women in a Pinto-van crash in 1978. The plaintiffs charged that the Pinto fuel tank in early-model cars had a tendency to rupture and burst into flames if hit from the rear.
Ford's position in the automatic-transmission case is that neither the company nor independent researchers in the US and Canada "have been able to identify a defect that could cause unexpected vehicle movement."
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, says that if NHTSA doesn't complete its probe soon, the center will go to court and try to force a recall.
Meanwhile, a recall of this magnitude, if ordered by NHTSA, would have a massive impact on the financially troubled No. 2 automaker and put it at an even greater disadvantage vis-a-vis the imports. A recall program could cost the company tens of millions of dollars and severely damage its standing with the consumer.
Ford Motor Company lost $41 million worldwide in the fourth quarter of 1979; thus, its so-far profitable overseas operations are unable to compensate entirely for its huge losses in North America. Ford lost $467 million on its North American automotive operations in the January-March quarter and stands to lose another hefty sum in the current quarter.
Ford has been at a disadvantage to much larger General Motors as well as the imports, notably the Japanese.
Mr. Nader attributes the foot-dragging by NHTSA to the federal government's "political" concern about the impact on Ford of such a huge recall.
Joan Claybrook, head of NHTSA, has no direct response to all the stir. However, a spokesman says: "Our response is that, as the government's investigative agency, we must act on hard, proven data, and we don't have enough data in order to come to a decision at the moment. The probe has been under way for the past several years.
"We have nothing else to say and reiterate our warning to consumers that this is something we are investigating and they should be aware of it."
NHTSA has been saying for many months that a decision is imminent. "How soon is soon?" a critic responds.
The federal agency denies that the Ford transmission probe has been shunted aside in favor of something else. "We've had a crash investigation on this one the whole way," says a NHTSA spokesman.
Meanwhile, at the end of March the agency had 31 safety-related defect investigations under way; a year ago it had 46.
The reduction is not significant, according to NHTSA. "In the spring of 1977 , when Joan Claybrook took over as administrator, there was a big backlog," says an agency spokesman. "It simply represents an effort to reduce the load."
Among the now-active investigations by NHTSA, 14 involve Ford Motor Company cars and trucks, two involve GM cars, and two involve Chrysler Corporation vehicles.
Among the imports are 1974-76 Volkswagen Rabbits, Dashers, and Sciroccos as well as Audi Foxes for an alleged faulty master brake cylinder, plus 1976-79 Renault Le Cars, 1975 Subaru station wagons, 1973-78 Toyota Corona and Corolla stations wagons, and Mazda RX-3 station wagons, for alleged faulty tailgate locks.
NHTSA has just dropped a GM truck probe as well as an extensive investigation of 1972-77 Fiat X1/9 and 128 models because, the agency said, it had failed to establish the existence of safety-related defects. The Fiat probe involved front-wheel bearings.