There are many reasons for a vehicle to be recalled by its manufacturer. These can include a faulty air conditioner, or floor mats that don’t fit as they should. There are recall notices issued all the time. Usually, owners are barely unaware of them. Every once in a while, though, there is a notorious auto recall that attracts media attention and generates a fair share of controversy. This is typically because the problem could lead to a fatal crash, or because the recall involves a large number of vehicles. Here are ten of the most infamous — and expensive — recalls in automotive history.
General Motor Engine Mounts
General Motors was the biggest of the “Big Three” American automakers in the 1960s. Their vehicles were ubiquitous on U.S. streets and highways. GM enjoyed a sterling reputation among motorists. That is, until 1969, when their were the subject of a massive and serious recall.
It turned out that GM cars made between 1965 and 1969 and equipped with a V8 engine had a fairly significant problem — the rubber parts in the vehicles’ engine mounts would give out, causing the engine to break free and pull open the throttle. This led to rapid, unexpected, and uncontrollable acceleration.
Even worse, this problem would also disable the brakes on the cars, making them almost impossible to stop as they accelerated out of control. By 1971, 172 cases of engine mount failure had been reported across the U.S., causing 63 accidents and 18 serious injuries. GM initially resisted the recall. Their president at the time, Edward Cole, actually said that the failing engine mount issue was no more serious than a flat tire. Government officials strongly disagreed and forced GM to issue a recall for nearly seven million vehicles.
Honda Seat Belts
Honda has always been viewed in North America as one of the more trustworthy foreign automakers. Their Honda Accord is constantly one of the bestselling cars in North America. Yet, Honda’s reputation for safety and reliability took a serious knock in the early 1990s when it was revealed that there was a major problem with the seat belts in many of its models.
Nearly four million Honda vehicles were recalled because their seat belts provided little to no protection. That’s because the release buttons would crack for no apparent reason and become completely unusable. This proved to be a frightening situation for drivers and passengers who were involved in an accident. Fortunately, Honda did the right thing. They issued a voluntary recall and replaced all the faulty seat belts. The company even helped to publicize the recall so that people far and wide knew about it.
Audi’s Sticky Acceleration
In the late 1970s and early 80s, German carmaker Audi was struggling to break into the U.S. and grow their North American sales. Its vehicle of choice to conquer the U.S. market was the Audi 5000. First introduced in 1978, the Audi 5000 was manufactured until 1986. Sales were decent at first, as Americans seemed to appreciate the luxury associated with Audi vehicles.
However, they took exception to the fact that the Audi 5000 was prone to unintended acceleration. Beginning in the early 1980s, officials in Washington, D.C., began receiving reports that the Audi 5000 would suddenly and uncontrollably accelerate after being shifted out of park. An extensive investigation was undertaken and the Audi 5000 became the subject of not one, not two, but three massive recalls carried out in 1982, 1983 and again in 1987.
Each time there was a recall, Audi claimed to have fixed the problem, only to have the problem occur again. The number of cars recalled wasn’t huge by historical standards, with about 400,000 vehicles affected. However, given Audi’s small position in the U.S. market at the time, it was a significant recall for them. It made national headlines and damaged Audi’s reputation stateside for years to come.
Another infamous recall that was far-reaching and led to new legislation governing the automotive industry was the Bridgestone-Firestone tire recall in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This recall was infamous because the issues with the Bridgestone-Firestone tires led to a rash of rollover deaths. These tragedies horrified the public and hurt the reputations of not only Bridgestone-Firestone, but also Ford, who had outfitted many of its signature SUVs with the tires.
The problem started when Firestone tires rolled off assembly lines with tire treads that separated from the steel belts inside them. Owners reported sudden and unexpected tire blowouts that jerked the wheel of the Ford Explorer, causing it to flip over in many cases. A media hell storm followed. Bridgestone-Firestone scrambled for a fix, recalling 6.5 million tires nationwide in the U.S. alone. Ford went even further, offering to replace 13 million Firestone tires on its various SUV brands. This problem led to new government legislation that mandated tire pressure sensors in all vehicles sold in the U.S.
Ford’s Automatic Transmission
The 1970s were a difficult decade for Ford. The vehicle manufacturer had to deal with a number of issues related to its cars and trucks — none bigger than the “park-to-reverse” defect found in its vehicles’ automatic transmissions. If Ford had issued a recall for this problem, it would have been the largest recall in automotive history.
A staggering 21 million vehicles were built with a defect in the transmission. It caused vehicles put in park to sometimes slip into reverse. By the time the U.S. federal government recognized the defect in 1980, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had received more than 23,000 complaints. Those complaints included reports of 6,000 accidents and 1,710 injuries, with 98 injuries confirmed to be caused by the defect.
Ford’s lawyers grappled with officials in Washington over the problem. After threatening to force a recall, the Department of Transportation reached a settlement with Ford that allowed the company to avoid a recall in exchange for sending its customers a warning sticker that could be placed prominently in the car’s interior.
Chevy Pickup Truck Fuel Tanks
Chevrolet is known for their pickup trucks. Brands such as the Silverado and Sierra are bestsellers. However, Chevy trucks were not always known for their safety. Back in 1973, engineers at Chevrolet designed a pickup truck with a 20 gallon fuel tank on either side of the vehicle. Auto safety groups alleged that the placement made the trucks vulnerable to exploding in a collision. A “T-bone” accident was especially dangerous, as fuel tanks were exposed on either side of the vehicle.
After a lengthy investigation, the U.S. Department of Transportation agreed that there was a problem with the fuel tanks. The government called on Chevy to issue a voluntarily recall but the company refused. The two sides went to court and eventually settled.
As part of the settlement, Chevrolet pledged $51 million to U.S. safety programs. No formal recall was ever ordered for Chevrolet trucks with side-saddle fuel tanks. However, as of 2015, Chevrolet and its parent company, GM, have paid out more than $500 million in settlements to burn victims because of the fuel tank defect on the 1970s era pickup trucks. Sad, but true.
Chevy Malibu Steering Columns
Some people say you haven’t lived until you’ve owned a second-hand Chevy Malibu. Sleeping in the back of a Malibu is a right of passage for many people. However, the Malibu is an infamous car for more than its appearance and popularity as a first car for many motorists.
In 1981, the Chevy Malibu was the subject of an extensive recall after it was learned that a loose suspension bolt was causing the car’s steering columns to become disabled. This could lead to drivers losing control of their cars as they drove. A total of six million Malibu cars were recalled, along with some other Chevy and GM brands who shared similar defects. The issue did nothing to help Chevy’s reputation in the early 1980s for poor quality and shoddy workmanship.
Toyota and Lexus Gas Pedals
Toyota has long enjoyed a sterling reputation for the quality and longevity of its vehicles. However, the Toyota brand suffered a serious blow in the 2000s when it was found that the gas pedals on several of the company’s most popular car models could become stuck in the down position, causing fatal runaway acceleration.
Toyota’s subsidiary brand, Lexus, was also affected by the problem. Adding insult to injury, Toyota executives at first blamed “all-weather” floor mats for the issue, saying that they were prone to jamming the gas pedal. However, when the problem continued, Toyota was forced to change the pedal’s design completely. It resulted in an international recall of nine million cars, costing the company billions of dollars. Toyota and Lexus are only now starting to recover financially from this massive recall.
Ford Cruise Control Switches
Texas Instruments had long made the cruise control switches in various Ford vehicles. However, over the years, these cruise control switches were proven to be faulty. In some cases, they would short circuit and cause fires to erupt. From 1996 to 2009, Ford was forced to recall a huge amount of cars, trucks, and SUVs from the years 1991 through to 2004. The total number of recalled vehicles reached 14.9 million and led to major financial losses for the company.
Equally bad for Ford was that the recurring problem wasn’t good for public perceptions. The media dubbed the Ford Explorer the “Ford Exploder,” and late night comedians had a field day making fun of the issue. Ford has since severed its relationship with Texas Instruments.
Ford Pinto Fires
Few cars are as notorious as the Ford Pinto. A classic car of the 1970s, the Pinto was manufactured by Ford from 1971 to 1976. Production was then shutdown amidst a massive recall and scandal. The problem was the lack of reinforcement between the Pinto’s fuel tank and the bolts in its rear. This led the gas tank in many Pintos to become pierced by the bolts in the event of a crash. That in turn caused the cars to catch fire and explode. It doesn’t take a genius to realize how dangerous that was.
Tests showed that many Pintos could burst into flames if another car merely rolled into their back bumper. A rear-end collision at a speed as slow as 20 mph could be a disaster instead of a mere fender-bender.
This problem became the subject of a controversial article in Mother Jones magazine entitled “Pinto Madness.” The article accused Ford of knowing about the fires but deciding that, because paying judgments brought by burn victims was cheaper than doing a recall, they elected not to recall the dangerous cars.
The article touched off a media frenzy, which was furthered when a memo from within Ford was leaked showing that the automaker did indeed know about the issue with the Pinto but calculated that paying damages from lawsuits would be cheaper than a recall. After being sued by regulators in Washington, D.C., Ford finally did the right thing and recalled its Pintos.