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11 biggest auto recalls in history

Despite what many might think, building a fully functional car, which is safe but also provides a decent experience is extremely hard. While you may get together a factory and some workers to handle the assembly, testing out a car under everyday conditions is an even harder task.

As such, especially for large carmakers which swap platforms, assemblies and parts like nobody’s business, small defects can appear. These small defects though can cause catastrophic accidents if they are left unchecked. As such, recalls are always issued if a fault is found in various cars.

With the recent plethora of problems from Toyota, either due to floor mats, gas pedals, brake systems or anything in between, we thought a list of the top 11 biggest recalls in history would be more than welcome, at least to make the executives in Japan less gloomy.

Without other delays, hit the jump to see what were the biggest recalls in history.

First off, I’m sure you’re wondering why 11 and not the regular 10? Well it’s because many carmakers had problems with the same general amount of vehicles, and we didn’t really comb through to find out how many models every specific recall involved. Tied manufacturers were classified in alphabetical order, just so nobody will call us biased. Numbers arrive from the NHTSA and various other outlets, but at least for the older ones, the true numbers might have been bigger or smaller.

10-11: Ford, 1987, 3.6 million vehicles

There are many vital parts in your car, each fulfilling a role to keep the machine going and you safe. Fuel lines are a key part of your vehicle, feeding precious, but dangerous liquid to the engine so that it can keep running. But given the flammable nature of fuel, the high amount of heat dispelled by the engine and various other hazards, you will definitely be in trouble if something were to happen to those lines.

Unfortunately for Ford, in 1987, something did happen, as faulty fuel line connectors from practically any model Ford made, from Lincolns to Mercuries to even ambulances, were prone to such a defect, and quite a few incidents of vehicles bursting on fire were recorded. The public backlash forced the Blue Oval to recall over 3.6 million cars.

GM, 2004, 3.6 million

Nobody pays that much attention to the tailgate on trucks, and sometimes busted up models don’t even have such an accessory. I’m sure though that you’ll pay a lot of attention if you saw one of these metal pieces flying towards you on the highway.

In 2004, due to faulty cables used by General Motors on many of its pick-up trucks, such a thing could’ve happened. After over a hundred incidents were reported, the US company finally issued the recall affecting around 3.6 million trucks, including Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Cadillac Escalade EXT and Chevrolet Avalanche.

7-9: GM, 1973, 3.7 million

Many roads nowadays are extremely safe, but you’ll occasionally need to drive through some tough terrain, and rocks and dirt can get underneath your car and mess with some of the mechanics. Luckily, almost all cars these days have guards or shields, to protect the delicate portions (gearbox, oil pan) or the sensitive systems (steering, braking).

Back in 1973 though, at least for GM cars, such guards weren’t all that popular. Until it was found out that rocks can damage the steering assembly, and cause lack of response that the company decided to something to remedy it. Effectively it was like the car had a mind of its own, groovy!

3.7 million vehicles were affected, including models like Buick Centurion, Electra, Estate Wagon, LeSabre, Riviera, Chevrolet Bel Air, Biscayne, Brookwood, Caprice, Impala, Kingswood, Kingswood Estate, Townsman, Oldsmobile 88 and 98, Pontiac Bonneville, Grand Ville and Catalina.

Honda, 1995, 3.7 million

Seatbelts save lives, so it’s very important to wear them when we are in car, either driving or as a passenger. But the seatbelt system in 1995 Honda models was much more laid back, at least its release button (aka the big orange thing) was. The tiny button was prone to getting loose and releasing the seatbelt while you were driving the car, and couldn’t lock the seatbelt in place.

The recall was immediate and affected over 3.7 million vehicles, including the Honda Accord, Civic or Prelude and even luxury or sport models like the Acura Integra, Legend or NSX.

Volkswagen, 1972, 3.7 million

The Volkswagen Beetle was an hugely popular car, bringing small, cheap and reliable transportation to the masses, cementing VW’s name as the people’s carmaker. Sadly though, there was one small hiccup in the mechanics of the reliable Beetle: the windshield wiper.

Most of us take wipers for granted, although we do forget to top up the washing liquid container, but the 3.7 million Beetles had a slightly bigger problem, as the wipers would completely fall off after repeated use. Now considering if such a thing would happen when you need it most, like when its raining or snowing, your life would surely be in danger.

VW though, at least according to some voices at the time, wanted to make customers pay for the repair of the wipers, claiming that it wasn’t a threat to their lives. After a public uproar though, the German company stood down, and paid for the new wipers and the bolts which held them in place.

6: Ford, 1972, 4.1 million

Seatbelts weren’t causing problems just for Honda in the 1990s, as Ford models suffered from quite a few issues in 1972, when the seatbelt shoulder harness would detach from the car altogether.

Even though people weren’t all that much into safe driving, let alone fastening their seatbelts (it wasn’t groovy, man), Ford was forced to recall over 4.1 million vehicles from under the Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands. The only models without such a problem were the convertible ones.

5: Toyota, 2009-2010, 4.9 million

Toyota manges to snugly fit in just around the middle of our list. We’re only counting the floor mat recall, as the unintended acceleration one had a different cause (even though there were models affected by both issues).

It seems that a failure in the design of the floormat on Toyota and Lexus models caused it to move around and get stuck under or over the accelerator pedal, preventing it from returning to a normal position. This caused quite a few incidents and affected a huge number of models. While 3.8 million vehicles were recalled at first, the number was soon increased with another 1.1 million. Models included were the Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Highlander, Matrix, Prius, Tacoma, Tundra, Venza or the Lexus ES, IS and even the Pontiac Vibe.

4: GM, 1981, 5.8 million

Now I dunno about you, but steering is quite important when driving a car. GM drivers found that the hard way, as certain models in 1981 had a really nasty habit of seeing their suspension bolts loosen up and even fall off, causing the whole vehicle to loose control.

5.8 million models were affected by this, GM’s second largest recall, including models like the Buick Century, Buick Regal, Chevrolet El Camino, Chevrolet Malibu, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, GMC Caballero, Oldsmobile Cutlass, Pontiac Grand Prix, and Pontiac LeMans

3: GM, 1971, 6.7 million

Number 4 was GM’s second largest recall, but in 1971, the US carmaker had to make the largest one, due to weak engine mounts. The engine, as you can imagine, is one of the heaviest pieces of the car, so you should also figure out that its mounts need to be extra strong to cope with its weight.

Well GM learned that thing the hard way, as mounts in over 6.7 million vehicles were faulty, and after a bit of wear, would break. This led to a plethora of incidents, including unintended acceleration, as the engine would push on the throttle cable. As such, GM had to recall models like the Chevrolet Bel Air, Brookwood, Camaro, Caprice, Chevy II, G-Series vans, Impala, Kingswood, Nova, P-Series, C-Series and Townsman, so that the engine mounts would be reinforced.

2: Ford, 1996, 7.9 million

Ford’s second biggest recall happened in 1996, when problems with the ignition systems caused a lot of issues on a huge number of its models. These issues included braking and steering problems, as well as the occasional fire or two.

Over 7.9 million vehicles needed to be recalled, including Ford Escort, Mustang, Tempo, Thunderbird, Cougar, Crown Victoria, Aerostar, Bronco, F-Series, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car, all extremely popular models for the Blue Oval.

You’d think that such a big recall would teach Ford a thing or two but …

1: Ford, 2008-2009, 14.1 million

… but the company didn’t learn until it was forced to recall a whopping 14.1 million vehicles. What first began as a “small” problem, with the cruise control switch on 9.6 million, soon saw another 4.5 million vehicles added to the total recall.

Said cruise control switch did more than just affect your cruising speed, as even if you had the car turned off and parked, it would catch fire, scorching the entire model if no intervention was made. Given the huge scope of the recall, affecting cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks from Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, the call back is still under effect, with some owners not even knowing about the cruise control problems.

So, after counting up all of the other huge recalls, it seems Toyota’s problem isn’t that big. But carmakers need to understand that no matter how global their reach is, even if a tiny bolt or screw isn’t up to par, it could have disastrous consequences.

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