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.

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