The Biggest Car Recalls of All Time

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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