Every decade or so there is an automotive recall that for one reason or another really grabs the headlines. Sadly, the recalls that make the biggest splash in the media usually involve injury or death. But they serve as reminders that even the largest carmakers can make mistakes that can lead to severe problems, accidents or other tragedy. It’s important to check your vehicle for recalls annually.
You never know when something will pop up. Whether it’s as simple as a fix for your broken air conditioning switch or something as serious as a fire hazard, the time to fix it is while the recall is active and dealer service departments are ready to make the repair.
Here are some recalls from recent history (in other words, recalls that have happened since I’ve been in the business!) that have left a stain on the track records of several auto manufacturers, starting with the little car that many felt would be the answer to the gas crunch of the 1970s.
The 1970s: Ford Pinto Recall
My generation can’t have a conversation about hideous examples of automotive design failure without bringing up one of the most lampooned cars of the 20th century, the Ford Pinto. The early 1970s saw something this country hadn’t experienced since World War II, a gas crunch. The gas crunch of the 1940s was due to rationing. The Allied forces needed as much fuel as we could get them for the war effort.
As a result, each driver was given only a certain amount of gas per week. Since nobody had experienced anything but a very free flow of very cheap gasoline, the rationing shocked the system in a major way, leaving drivers trying to figure out when was a good time to use their car and when to figure something else out. Fast forward to the early ‘70s, and a gas crisis of a different design hit the United States. This time it was due to a lack of supply thanks to overseas oil exporters flexing their muscles. This time, however, the automobile industry reacted quickly, bringing to market a number of what were at the time very fuel efficient vehicles. Among these new vehicles was the Ford Pinto. Shockingly small by ‘70s standards, the Pinto’s small size and engine promised to save drivers a lot of money at the gas pump and, more important at the time, fewer visits to the gas station as well. There was only one problem with the Pinto, it had a tendency to burst into flames if hit in the rear.
This was a huge problem, and pretty much tanked Pinto sales for Ford, despite a redesign of the fuel system that eliminated any chance of this happening. In their defense, there weren’t that many cases of the cars catching fire on impact, but the media’s attention, and the general scariness of sitting in a burning car, killed it.
The 1980s: Audi 5000S Mess
Probably the most famous recall of the 1980s was at Audi, although it never resulted in a recall at all. After a series of accidents, some more serious than others, it began to look like Audis were suffering from a dangerous and troublesome issue — unintended accleration. What exactly does unintended acceleration mean? It means your car goes when you don’t want it to. Of course, the reality of this issue was far more complicated.
All of the Audi cars involved were equipped with an automatic transmission. Drivers were claiming that their vehicles were launching themselves forward without any contact with the gas pedal. Further, in some cases they were saying that the car’s gear selector was not even in the Drive position when this launch occurred. According to some of the accounts, the cars launched forward at full speed. The problem was occurring when drivers left the car running and stepped out of the vehicle to do something like get their mail, or run back inside for a forgotten item. Needless to say, the idea of unintended acceleration can be terrifying, with grave results. The problem with fixing this is unintended acceleration claims are especially hard to substantiate. It’s only natural that a car manufacturer is going to first investigate these claims with an eye on driver error. After all, driver error is more likely to be the culprit than something as far fetched as a car putting itself into drive then gunning the accelerator so it launches forward at full speed until something stops it.
After a lengthy investigation, no mechanical problems were found in the Audi 5000. The NHTSA report pretty much exonerated Audi and pointed rather at likely driver error in all of the cases. But the media was running fast and hard, with a scathing report from show 60 Minutes that showed an Audi launching itself, only to later be exposed as a completely staged incident using remote controlled mechanical devices to make the “accident” happen. But the Audi 5000S remains seared into the brains of consumers as the car that would launch itself across the driveway and over your dog, or worse.
The 1990s: Ford Ignition Fires
The 1990s found Ford Motor Company again trying to put out fires, both in its vehicles and in the media. As major recalls are known to do, this one started out small and snowballed (or fireballed as the case was) into a major company disaster. The problem was with their ignition switches. Unfortunately it affected almost every Ford that was being produced in the early ‘90s.
Apparently the ignition switches could spontaneously catch fire, even if the ignition was off and nobody was in the car. This left lots of affected Fords smoldering unnoticed until a full fledged fire burst out. Mothers were afraid to leave their children in the car for even a minute for fear they would be stuck in a smoky asphyxiation chamber or caught in a fire. This was serious business for Ford. The legal details were never fully ironed out as far as I know, but there were accusations of cover ups, prior knowledge of the problem and other legal maneuvering in attempts to limit the scope of the recall they knew was on the horizon. In the end, just under 8 million Fords were recalled for faulty ignition switches. In addition, they had to pay a whopping fine to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and faced a class action suit led by insurance companies who probably had to pay out some hefty settlements on cars that burned to the ground for what they thought was no reason.
The 2000s: Firestone and Ford
It may seem like I’m picking on Ford here, but believe me, it’s not at all intentional. I’ve owned a number of Fords and some of them have been great cars. In fact, my father in law was a Ford engineer who did a lot of development in the ‘80s. But one of the scariest recalls in the first decade of the millennium was the Ford/Firestone tire recall that affected the Explorer.
Firestone supplied the tires for Ford Explorers, but unfortunately something happened and a massive batch or batches of these were defective. We’re not talking about slow leaks or premature tire wear here, these tires would catastrophically fail at high speed. As the tires heated up, something was causing them to deflate rapidly (some might say they tires were exploding), causing the truck to lose control instantly. Due to the generally top heavy nature of an SUV like the Explorer, many of them would end up flipping sideways and tumbling off the road when the tire failed. This was another recall that really captured the attention of the media and the general public. There were lots of Explorers on the road, so the number of people affected was huge. And the prospect of your truck suddenly tumbling down the highway at speed was pretty scary. Other vehicles were involved in this Firestone disaster, but Explorers bore the brunt of it. In all, 13 million tires were subject to the Ford/Firestone recall.
The ‘80s were especially hard on Ford in the recall department, with another major recall involving faulty cruise control systems that were catching fire. This one popped up a number of times through the decade, each time adding more vehicles to the list of affected Fords. Ouch.
The 2010s: Another Deadly Ignition Problem
With recalls such a huge part news coverage this decade, very few recurrent car or truck problems are able to sneak past the eyes of the media. This may seem inflammatory on the part of the media, but if you happen to be one of those drivers who is operating a vehicle that’s involved in a recall — or one that should be involved in a recall — you’d be very happy to learn about it before it affects you in a dangerous way.
One of the most attention grabbing recalls of the decade so far has been the hugeGeneral Motors ignition switch recall. Ignition switches in a number of GM vehicles were found to suddenly turn off, killing the engine without warning, leaving the driver without power steering, power brakes or anything else that’s supposed to be available when you’re driving down the street. Imagine cruising down the highway at 65 mph when suddenly your steering goes stiff and your brake pedal is very hard to press down. Super dangerous! The most damning part of this recall was the discovery that, perhaps, GM had known the problem existed for some time and done nothing about it. It was initially blamed on drivers with too many keys on their keychains causing the switch to move on its own (really??). In the end, GM was forced to recall these vehicles and replace the ignition switches. It was a huge mess. You can’t be up to speed on this decade’s biggest recalls without talking about the greatTakata Airbag recall.
This one was unique in that it affected all different makes and models of car and truck. Takata was an airbag manufacturer that supplied the safety devices to lots of car companies. Something about the way they were made was causing metal shards to shoot from the airbag at high speed, striking the driver like shrapnel. The recall has been huge, and has grabbed lots of headlines due to the gruesome nature of the defect.