Infamous auto recalls
Toyota’s troubles may have pushed car recalls into the headlines, but they were hardly the first high-profile carmaker to do so. In fact, Toyota’s recalls of the past year amounting to 9.1 million vehicles, aren’t nearly as infamous as some in the past.
For sheer size, Ford’s fire-prone, cruise control mechanisms prompted a car recall of more than 20 models and nearly 15 million vehicles worldwide from 1996 to 2010. If your criterion for worst ever is unbridled brand damage, look no further than Ford’s 1978 recall of its snake-bitten Pinto model, which led to years of bad press and the phrase “a barbecue that seats four.”
Since the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted in 1966 giving the government the power to recall unsafe cars, 390 million vehicles have been recalled. Most car recalls were important, but more for mundane fixes for defective emergency brakes, leaky fuel lines, bad axles and other parts that can fall victim to bad design or shoddy manufacturing.
1965-1969 General Motors
In 1969, owners of V-8-powered General Motors cars began experiencing a small problem. The rubber parts in their vehicles’ engine mounts would give out, causing the engine to come free, twist upward and pull open the throttle, resulting in rapid acceleration. It would often disable brake assistance, making it harder to stop the car.
By 1971, 172 cases of engine-mount failure had been reported, resulting in 63 accidents and 18 injuries. GM initially resisted a recall, with Edward Cole, GM’s president at the time, claiming that a failing engine mount was no more serious than a flat tire. The government disagreed and GM issued a voluntary recall of 6.7 million vehicles.
1971-1976 Ford Pinto
The 1978 recall of Ford’s popular compact Pinto model came after a public outcry and months of legal wrangling between Ford and the government. At issue was the lack of reinforcement between the Pinto’s fuel tank and the bolts in its rear differential. Critics alleged that this design flaw made the gas tank susceptible to becoming pierced by the bolts and catching fire in a rear-end collision.
The problem became the subject of a controversial article in Mother Jones magazine titled “Pinto Madness.” It accused Ford of knowing about the problem but deciding that, because paying judgments brought by burn victims was cheaper than doing a recall, it elected not to recall the car. The article touched off a media frenzy.
Had Ford done a full recall for its infamous “park-to-reverse” automatic transmission defect, it would have been by far the biggest recall in history. A staggering 21 million vehicles were built with a defect in the transmission that allowed a car that appeared to be in “park” to slip into reverse, says the Center for Autosafety, or CAS, a car safety organization in Washington D.C.
By the time the government officially recognized the defect in 1980, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had received more than 23,000 complaints and reports of 6,000 accidents and 1,710 injuries, with 98 attributed to the defect, the center said.
After initially threatening to force a recall, Department of Transportation, or DOT, officials reached a settlement with Ford, allowing it to avoid a recall in exchange for warning customers and sending out a warning sticker that could be placed prominently in the car’s interiors.
1978-1986 Audi 5000
Long before Toyota’s problems, unintended acceleration was giving the luxury brand Audi fits, with a series of car recalls of its 5000 model that nearly drove it from American shores. In the early 1980s, the government began receiving reports claiming the Audi would suddenly and uncontrollably accelerate after being shifted out of “park.”
Car recalls in 1982, 1983 and 1987 attempted to address the problem. The number of cars recalled wasn’t huge by historical standards, coming to 389,102 cars, but the fault grabbed headlines nationwide and damaged Audi sales.
1973-1983 Chevrolet pickups
No formal recall was ordered for Chevrolet trucks with side-saddle fuel tanks, but that didn’t stop the controversy from dragging on for years.
In 1973, GM engineers designed a pickup with a 20-gallon fuel tank on either side of the pickup. Auto safety groups alleged that the placement made the trucks vulnerable to exploding in a “T-bone” accident, which exposed the tanks to direct impact with another car.
The government called on GM to issue a voluntarily recall but GM refused, eventually settling with the DOT. In the settlement, GM pledged $51 million to U.S. safety programs. According to CAS, GM has paid out more than $500 million in settlements to burn victims because of the defect.
Texas Instruments switches caused Ford vehicles built over two decades to catch fire, becoming a nightmare for Ford. From 1996 to 2009, Ford was forced to recall cars and trucks between model years 1991 and 2004. The vehicles operated with faulty cruise control deactivation switches that could short out and ignite. The total recalled vehicles reached 14.9 million vehicles.
The recurring problem wasn’t good for public perceptions of Ford’s quality. The press unofficially dubbed the Ford Explorer, the “Ford Exploder.”
“(Owners) would have their nice Lincoln or Mercury parked in their garage, and the thing would catch fire in the middle of the night,” says auto safety expert Byron Bloch.
Bridgestone-Firestone tires on 2000 Ford SUVs
The Bridgestone-Firestone recall technically applied only to the tires, but the public uproar over a rash of rollover deaths also hurt Ford, who used the tires on their SUVs. The problem started when Firestone tires rolled off assembly lines with tire treads that separated from the steel belts inside them. Owners spooked by the sudden blowout tended to jerk the wheel of the top-heavy Explorer, causing it to flip.
A media firestorm ensued, and Bridgestone-Firestone scrambled for a fix, recalling 6.5 million tires. Ford, pointing to the the defective tires, went further, offering to replace 13 million Firestone tires on its SUVs.
2004-2010 Toyota, 2006-2010 Lexus
Toyota suffered a major blow to its reputation for exceptional quality after it was found that the gas pedals on several models could become stuck in the down position, causing sometimes fatal runaway acceleration. Its subsidiary brand, Lexus, was also affected.
At first, Toyota blamed “all-weather” floor mats that it said were prone to jamming the gas pedal. When the problem continued, the company was forced to change the pedal’s design altogether, resulting in a recall of 9 million cars and a cost to Toyota in the billions of dollars.