Recalls aren't pleasant for anyone — automaker or vehicle owner. But they are necessary. Here are the worst we've seen to date.
Traditionally, product recalls are a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" proposition for automakers. Companies that diligently raise a recall flag run the risk that their competition will use the recall as an example of their own brand's superiority; those caught hiding a known defect until it's too late are often crucified in the media. The public has softened its view of recalls in recent years, and a recall or two no longer labels a model as a lemon for eternity. Manufacturers have also seen the light and now approach recalls in a proactive, concerned manner, as opposed to the reactionary backpedaling and denials with which they met federal recall actions in the past.
The auto industry probably will never be free of consumer-troubling recalls. It's inevitable: As vehicles become more advanced and use increasing numbers of complex electrical and mechanical systems, there are going to be a few problems.
Let's take a look at 10 of the largest recalls to date.
10. General Motors, 2004Defect: Tailgate cable failure
Units affected: 3.66 million
Models affected: 1999-2004 Chevrolet Avalanche and Silverado; Cadillac Escalade; GMC Sierra
Date: March 2004
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration action number: PE03049
What happened: Between 1999 and 2004, 134 customers suffered minor accidents when tailgate cables corroded and failed and tailgates collapsed. According to GM, customers were clearly warned in the vehicles' operating instructions not to stand on open tailgates, but GM offered to replace the cables in 2004. It's worth noting that the galvanized-steel cables are fully exposed and in full view whenever the tailgate is operated — it seems a worn cable would be obvious. Here's betting more of the accidents happened in stadium parking lots than on construction sites.
9. Volkswagen, 1972Defect: Loose windshield wipers
Units affected: 3.7 million
Models affected: 1949-'69 Beetle
Date: October 1972
NHTSA campaign number: 72V256000
What happened: Windshield wipers are essential for visibility, but for decades VW's wiper arms were notorious for working themselves loose and falling off. After years of customer complaints, VW finally relented in 1972 and agreed to replace the windshield wipers on millions of Volkswagens with an improved design that actually remained attached to vehicles during repeated use. Anyone old enough to remember how poorly the Beetle's noisy yet ineffective defroster worked will question how owners even knew their wipers were missing in the first place.
8. Honda, 1995Defect: Faulty seatbelt buckle
Units affected: 3.7 million
Models affected: 1986-1991 Acura Legend, Integra and NSX; Honda Accord, Civic and Prelude
Date: May 1995
NHTSA campaign number: 95V103001
What happened: In the mid-1990s, Honda dealers noticed that the plastic seatbelt-release buttons on several of its models were failing, and that bits of broken plastic occasionally were falling into the seatbelt assembly and preventing it from properly securing the belt. Unfortunately, drivers may not have been aware of the situation until the assembly was under stress, such as in accident.
Read: Seat Belts, Airbags & More
7. GM, 1973Defect: Stone-guard assembly
Units affected: 3.71 million
Models affected: 1971-'72 Buick Centurion, Electra, Estate Wagon, LeSabre and Riviera; Chevrolet Bel Air, Biscayne, Brookwood, Caprice, Impala, Kingswood, Kingswood Estate and Townsman; Oldsmobile 88 and 98; Pontiac Bonneville, Grand Ville and Catalina
Date: January 1973
NHTSA campaign number: 73V013000
What happened: Apparently, large stones could lodge between the steering coupling and the frame of these GM heavyweights, preventing the operator from turning the vehicle to the left. Thankfully, GM remedied the situation with a quick and easy retrofit of a stone-guard assembly, protecting Americans' right to turn left.
6. Ford, 1972Defect: Seatbelts fraying and detaching
Units affected: 4.07 million
Models affected: 1970-'71 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles
Date: June 1972
NHTSA campaign number: 72V160000
What happened: When it comes to vehicle-occupant safety, it's hard to beat a shoulder harness. But they aren't worth a dime if they fail under pressure like Gary Busey on an episode of "The Apprentice." So when a small plastic part on the shoulder harness of these vehicles began to crumble under pressure — possibly due to a molding defect — Ford did the right thing and implemented an inexpensive fix to keep passengers safe and in place under duress.
5. GM, 1981
Units affected: 5.82 million
Models affected: 1978-'1 Buick Century and Regal; Chevrolet El Camino, Malibu and Monte Carlo; GMC Caballero; Oldsmobile Cutlass; Pontiac Grand Prix and LeMans
Date: February 1981
NHTSA campaign number: 81V025000
What happened: Whether a car is front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, independent or solid axle, its rear wheels don't just travel in forward and reverse, they also have to travel up and down to soak up bumps and keep passengers comfortable, all while remaining firmly mounted to the chassis. That's where it gets tricky. If any part of the rear suspension fails at speed, the probability of passenger drama is high. With this in mind, GM agreed to replace rear-control-arm bolts on a number of models in early 1980s, when reports surfaced that the bolts could fracture or loosen, leading to a loss of control.
4. Toyota, 2010Defect: Unintended acceleration
Units affected: 6.67 million
Models affected: 2004-'10 Toyota Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Corolla Matrix, Highlander, Prius, RAV4, Tacoma, Tundra; various Lexus models
Date: October 2009 and January 2010
NHTSA campaign numbers: 09V38800, 10V017000
What happened: One issue, two recalls. Reports of unintended acceleration are mechanical enigmas. They are difficult to re-create in a service environment and easy to blame on driver error. Toyota ended up issuing two recalls in this case, one for a misplaced or incorrect floor mat that could jam the accelerator pedal, and one for a possible sticky accelerator-pedal mechanism.
Read Blog: 18 New Models Earn Top Safety Pick
3. GM, 1971Defect: Engine-mount failure
Units affected: 6.7 million
Models affected: 1965-'70 Chevrolet Bel Air, Brookwood, Camaro, Caprice, Chevy II, G Series, Impala, Kingswood, Nova, P Series, C Series and Townsman; GMC C Series, G Series and P Series
Date: December 1971
NHTSA campaign number: 71V235000
What happened: Motor mounts seem almost destined to fail. They have to be tough enough to keep a weighty engine in place, yet soft and pliable enough to allow for flex and to prevent the transfer of vibration to the vehicle's occupants. But when more than just a random amount of GM mounts started crumbling in the early 1970s, both GM and NHSTA knew something was up. After some back and forth, GM issued the recall before NHSTA made it official. Curiously, the official GM fix didn't include replacing the mounts, but simply anchored the engine to the firewall with a cable to prevent the engine from moving under mount failure, a situation that often resulted in unintended and uncontrollable acceleration.
2. Ford, 1996Defect: Faulty ignition switch
Units affected: 7.9 million
Models affected: 1988-'93 Ford Aerostar, Bronco, Crown Victoria, Escort, Mustang, Tempo and Thunderbird; Ford F-Series trucks; Lincoln Town Car; Mercury Cougar, Grand Marquis and Topaz
Date: April 1996
NHTSA campaign number: 96V071000
What happened: By the mid-1990s, it had become apparent that the ignition switches in numerous Ford products were taking the idea of ignition too literally. There were reports of switch self-ignition, which caused electrical shorts and steering-column meltdowns. Nearly 8 million vehicles were affected by the time the offending ignition switch was phased out.
1. Ford, 2009Defect: Cruise-control switch spontaneous combustion
Units affected: More than 14 million
Models affected: 1992-2003 Ford Explorer, Excursion, Ranger, Windstar, E-150 - 450 and F-150 - 450; Mercury Mountaineer.
Date: October 2009
NHTSA campaign number: 09V399000
What happened: The largest recall in automotive history originated with faulty cruise-control switches that were a possible fire hazard. The switches were prone to overheating, smoking or even burning, often hours after the vehicle had been parked. To complicate matters in certain models, the cruise-control meltdown would spread to the anti-lock braking system, requiring further inspection. Although the original recall affected only 4.5 million customers, an estimated 14 million vehicles were ultimately recalled.