The Biggest Car Recalls of All Time

Cars on a lot
Source: Thinkstock
Earlier this week , it was announced that Toyota officially surpassed General Motors as the world’s leading auto manufacturer, reclaiming a title it lost to the American company in 2011 following a series of huge recalls that tarnished the public’s perception of the manufacturer. Toyota’s triumph may be short-lived, however. On Thursday the company announced the recall of 1.3 million cars due to a risk of airbags deploying without warning.

The timing could not have been worse for the Japanese automaker. One of the major reasons Toyota lost its title in the first place was the fiasco over uncontrolled acceleration caused by faulty floor mats. Dozens of people may have been killed because of this. Subsequent recalls and lawsuits could cost the company as much as $5 billion, and damaged its reputation enough to cause people to choose other automakers.

Recalls are actually far more common than many people realize. In the past three years alone, several thousand have taken place, although most of these affected a relatively small number of vehicles. The truly massive recalls, like the Toyota sudden acceleration issue, occur far less frequently. Of the 10 biggest recalls since the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration began compiling data in the 60’s, only two have occurred in the past ten years.

A review of similar recalls reflects how damaging they can be to company and sales. In 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone recalled millions of tires on several of its models, including the Explorer, the most popular SUV in America at the time. The cars, equipped with Wilderness AT Firestone tires rolled over when the tire tread separated with alarming frequency, potentially causing more than 200 deaths. analyst Jeremy Acevedo explained what a disaster the firestone incident was for Ford.  “A long time leader of the segment, the Explorer’s market share dipped from 20.4% of the Midsize SUV market in 2000 to 17.8% in 2001. That would mark the beginning of the slide in market share for the Explorer that would last for several years.”

While the worst recalls on record are truly massive, affecting several million vehicles and hurting the company’s image, Acevedo explained most cases do not have the same serious negative impact. “Recalls are a part of car ownership and most make no lasting impact on consumer’s perception of the brand, or the brand’s sales.”

In 1981, after complaints of vehicles shifting out of park into reverse and injuring hundreds, the NHTSA forced Ford to take action and deal with the 21 million vehicles that could have potentially been affected by the issue. Rather than offering to fix the problem, however, Ford was permitted to send warning stickers to owners of the affected models instead. While it was the largest recall of all time, it only cost the company several million dollars — instead of several billion.

Based on data collected from the NHTSA’s recall database, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 biggest car recalls of all time. In some cases, a single cause had several different recall numbers while the manufacturer tried to identify the source of the issue. In those cases, we counted the different recalls were treated as a single issue. In the case of the 1981 Ford recall, while the automaker never technically issued a recall of its vehicles, it is considered by the NHTSA to be a type of recall, and we treated it accordingly.

These are the largest car recalls all time.

10. Volkswagen  (1972)
> Vehicles affected: 3.7 million (tied-ninth highest)
> Issue: Wiper screw coming loose
> Components affected: Windshield Wiper

In 1972, a recall was issued for Volkswagen vehicles from the 1949 through 1969 model years. According to the NHTSA, the screw securing a car’s windshield wipers could be loosened, causing drivers to struggle to see the road during rain storms and snowy conditions. Prior to issuing a public announcement, the NHTSA had received complaints from more than 70 Volkswagen owners. However, according to a 1973 United Press International article, “Volkswagen decided the problem was not safety related and that owners should pay for repairs.”

9. Honda (1995)
> Vehicles affected: 3.7 million (tied-ninth highest)
> Issue: Belt buckle release breaking
> Components affected: Seat belt buckle assembly

Honda was forced to recall 3.7 million cars in the mid-nineties due to a defective seat belt buckle assembly. This recall affected the Accord, Prelude and Civic models from the 1986 through 1991 model years. A number of models from Honda’s Acura line were also impacted. The seat belt release button In the recalled cars had the potential to break — a problem the NHTSA determined “worsens with time and exposure, creating a greater risk of buckle failures as time goes by.” In all, numerous Asian and American automakers were hit by recalls for the seat belts, which were made by Takata Corp., but none were more affected than Honda, which had hundreds of thousands more vehicles recalled than the next-highest carmaker, Nissan.

8. General Motors (1973)
> Vehicles affected: 3.7 million
> Issue: Stones entering engine compartment
> Components affected: Underbody shields

More than 3.7 million General Motors vehicles from the Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac lines were recalled in 1973. The problem: stones from graveled and unpaved roads could become stuck in the engine compartment, potentially affecting the driver’s ability to steer. This was corrected by installing a gravel shield over the steering coupling. According to United Press International, the Center for Auto Safety alleged that it had alerted GM to the problem in July 1972, six months before the automaker initiated the recall.

7. Ford (1972)
> Vehicles affected: 4.1 million
> Issue: Connecting part in seat belt breaking from wear
> Components affected: Seat belt webbing

In 1972, Ford had to recall over four million vehicles to fix a small component called a grommet, which is part of a seat belt. This could break with repeated usage, making it impossible for the driver or passenger to lock in the shoulder harness. Each grommet cost only a few cents to make, according to a June 1972 Associated Press article. The recall affected most cars produced by Ford for its U.S. lines for the 1970 and 1971 model years, excluding only its Maverick and convertible models. The problem was easily corrected by replacing the original piece with another made of neoprene.

6. Toyota (2007-2010)
> Vehicles affected: 5.7 million
> Issue: Floor mat interfering with accelerator pedal
> Components affected: Accelerator pedal

In 2007, Toyota issued a recall on the optional All-Weather Floor Mats Toyota sold for its 2007 and 2008 Camry and Lexus ES 350 models. These mats could move forward while the car was in motion, causing the accelerator pedal to become stuck. In early 2009, Toyota issued a second recall, this time for the 2004 Toyota Sienna, in which the carpet cover could also become stuck and lead to unexpected acceleration. Later that year, the company recalled 4.4 million more Toyotas due to the same problem. This was expanded the next year to include another 1.1 million cars. In late December 2012, Toyota settled a consolidated lawsuit for approximately $1 billion with claimants who alleged economic loss. The first of hundreds of wrongful death or injury lawsuits was settled in mid-January. As of 2010, at least 89 deaths were found to have been potentially connected to unintended acceleration problems in Toyota cars.

5. General Motors (1981)
> Vehicles affected: 5.8 million
> Issue: Fracturing of bolts connecting control arm to frame
> Components affected: Rear suspension

In 1981, General Motors recalled 5.8 million vehicles — from Buick Regals to Chevy Malibus — due to the fracturing of bolts that connect the lower rear control and the car frame. All of the vehicles were made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In instances where these bolts did fracture, the control arm would be dropped from the car, leading to a loss of control. The recall was prompted by reports to GM of 27 accidents resulting in 22 injuries, although none of the injuries were serious. The bolts were replaced in all affected cars for no charge.

4. General Motors (1971)
> Vehicles affected: 6.7 million
> Issue: Separated motor mount causing engine to lift
> Components affected: Engine

In 1971, General Motors recalled nearly 6.7 million cars spanning the 1965 through 1970 model years. It was the largest recall in the U.S. up to that point. The defect summary explained that “a separated motor mount may allow the engine to lift” and could “momentarily increasing throttle.” GM initially stated that no problem existed. Instead, they alleged, the recall and modifications to motor mounts were intended to eliminate concerns brought on by misinformation. According to the Associated Press, consumer advocate Ralph Nader sent a personal letter to GM’s then-Chairman James Roche. In his letter, Nader referred to GM President Ed Cole’s comments that engine mount problems were not serious as a “defiance of reason,” noting “the motor mount failure leads to serious vehicle behavior patterns including jammed accelerators and gearshifts and loss of power assist to brakes and steering.”

3. Ford (1996)
> Vehicles affected: 7.9 million
> Issue: Ignition switch short circuiting
> Components affected: Ignition

In 1996, an ignition switch with the potential to short-circuit led Ford to recall 7.9 million vehicles, ranging from Thunderbird convertibles to pickup trucks such as the F-350. This short circuit, capable of causing a fire in the steering column, required a replacement for the ignition switch in numerous Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars from the 1988 through 1993 model years. According to a 1996 Los Angeles Times article, many of the the fires “involved vehicles that were parked and had been shut off for hours. In some cases, autos caught fire in garages and damaged the owner’s home as well as the vehicle.”

2. Ford (1999-2009)
> Vehicles affected: 15 million
> Issue: Speed control deactivation leaking/ short circuiting
> Components affected: Vehicle speed control

Ford first issued a recall to address short circuiting with its speed control system in 1999. The recall noted that in three different models from 1992 and 1993 this could potentially lead to an underhood fire. Problems with speed control deactivation led to more recalls in 2005, which affected 5.2 million pickup trucks and SUVs. These were followed by more vehicle recalls in 2006 and 2007. In February 2008, according to the New York Times, the NHTSA took an “unusual step” and “issued a consumer advisory urging owners whose vehicles had not yet been fixed to have the switches disconnected immediately.” In October 2009, a seventh recall to address the problem was announced — meaning, in all, nearly 15 million vehicles from the 1992 through 2004 model years were affected.

1. Ford (1981)
> Vehicles affected: 21 million
> Issue: Unexpected movement after shifted into park
> Components affected: Gear position indicator, transmission

The largest automotive recall of all time involved 21 million Ford, Mercury and Lincoln vehicles with model years ranging from 1970 to 1980. The cause of this recall was a parking gear that could potential to fail to engage, even after the transmission was shifted to park and the indicator showed the car to be in park. However, Ford was able to avoid any obligation to repair the vehicles when it agreed to send a warning label to automatic transmission car owners. According to the Center for Auto Safety — a consumer advocacy group — as of 1980 there had been “6,000 accidents, 1,710 injuries, and 98 fatalities…directly attributable to transmission slippage.”

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