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The 10 Biggest Vehicle Recalls In History

Like death and taxes, product recalls are a symptom of everyday life. It seems that every year, a new recall is announced for something we own, with horror stories about the dangers of using them in the headlines. From exploding smartphones, to lead paint in toys, recalls are a hot topic in today’s news cycle and a constant source of annoyance for millions of consumers.

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Cars are no exception. In fact, cars are often the first pieces of technology we think of when we hear the word ‘recall.’ Unfortunately, this is because auto recalls are the most likely to cause death and injury. Some auto recalls have even entered our cultural lexicon, either because of how many deaths they caused, or the way companies chose to handle the situations. Here are 10 such recalls that have left drivers afraid of getting behind the wheel.

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10 GM brake recall

This recall is the most recent on this list. First reported by CNN, General Motors announced that they were recalling 3.4 million trucks and SUVs made between 2014 and 2018. The issue, they claim, is a faulty vacuum pump that deteriorates over time, forcing drivers to press down harder on their breaks to come to a complete stop.

The issue has caused over 113 accidents, resulting in 13 injuries, but thankfully no one has died as of the time of this writing. So, if you’re a GM truck owner, and this is the first time you’re hearing about this recall, now’s probably the best time to click the CNN link above to see if you’re affected.

9 Tesla parking brake recall

From an issue that prevented drivers from stopping to one that kept from taking off at all.

In 2017, Tesla issued a recall for cars made in 2016 to fix a finicky parking brake that could prevent cars from getting out of park.

While the number of cars that were recalled was comparatively small, at around 53,000, that number still represents around 70% of the company’s entire output for that year. If that happened to any of Tesla’s larger rivals, the amount would’ve been in the millions.

8 Ford’s fire recalls

In the mid-to-late ‘90s, Ford was hit with two different recalls that both resulted in similar problems. Mainly, their cars would burst into flames over two different, yet equally dangerous design flaws.

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The first affected cars produced in the ‘80s and involved overheating ignition switches. The second involved a device meant to turn off cruise control that, you guessed it, could overheat and cause a fire. It took years for Ford to rectify the solution, but it still helped to redefine the meaning of ‘hot rod.’

7 Ford Pinto

The all-American deathtrap, the Pinto has become a synopsis of corporate mismanagement and horrible design. First released in 1970, the Pinto was marketed as a small, fuel-efficient sedan to compete with European and Japanese rivals. However, what the Pinto was best known for was the fact that it used to explode during the slightest collision.

Due to a cheaply made fuel tank and associated gas line, the Pinto was essentially a ticking time bomb on wheels. In the end, the Pinto became a textbook example of how not to build a car.

6 Ford’s faulty parking system

Immediately after suffering the PR nightmare that was the Pinto, Ford found themselves in hot water once again, when close to 100 people died because of a defective parking system. A bad safety catch caused many Ford cars and trucks to slip from reverse without warning, sending a formally parked vehicle hurtling towards pedestrians, buildings and other obstacles.

An astonishing 20 million vehicles were recalled during the fiasco, costing the company nearly $2 billion and further damaging the brand’s image in the public’s perspective.

5 Toyota’s floor mats/accelerator pedals

At the turn of the decade, Toyota was faced with an embarrassing, and costly, recall over accelerator pedals that would remain stuck in place and prevent breaking. The news was full of horror stories of people who found themselves flying down the highway with no way to stop. At first, floor mats were to blame, due to a poor latch system that caused them to get wedged up and over the gas pedal, holding it down.

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However, while that may have been an issue, it was later discovered that the pedals themselves would get stuck in place regardless of where the floor mats were located.

4 Firestone tires

Back to Ford again, over a recall that may, or may not, have been their fault. In the ‘90s, reports of the Ford Explorer rolling over became headline news. In nearly every case, the tires that were used, Firestones, were found to have spontaneously deteriorated without warning, often when the tires were still new.

Ford blamed Firestone for the issue, claiming that there was nothing inherently wrong with the Explorer to cause the accident. Firestone, meanwhile, pointed the finger at Ford, over the fact that the issue only occurred on the company’s vehicles. The war of words ended the two companies’ decades-long working relationship, and they remain bitter to this day.

3 GM ignition switch

In an act of corporate mismanagement that rocked the industry, General Motors announced a recall of 30 million cars due to a problem that resulted in over 100 deaths. In early 2014, it was revealed that a faulty ignition switch in certain GM models caused the cars to slip into accessory mode at random, often while the car was in drive, thus preventing the airbags from deploying when the car inevitably crashed.

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The problem caused a nationwide panic and was a public relations disaster for the company, which had just seen its profits rebound following the 2008 financial crisis. Allegations that GM knew about the problems for years before, but did nothing to stop it, lead to outrage throughout the industry.

2 Takata airbags

As of this writing, the Takata airbag issue is still ongoing and is nowhere near being resolved. In 2013, nearly 4 million cars were recalled over defective airbags that contained sharp metal shards that could kill the driver if deployed. As the scope of the crisis widened, that number grew, until it became one of the largest recalls in automotive history.

With so many cars installed with Takata airbags, it’s possible that not every one of them would be replaced, and it’s still possible that more cars would be added to the list as the investigation continues.

1 Volkswagen emissions scandal

In a move that forever tainted the image of a world brand, Volkswagen was accused of manipulating their cars to bypass federal emissions regulations. In 2015, regulators found a program in VW’s line of turbo diesel cars that was designed to trick EPA emissions tests, to make it seem that they were complying with the agency’s demands. In reality, the cars were emitting higher levels of carbon than would’ve been permitted otherwise.

Nearly all of VW’s TDI cars were recalled, top executives were arrested and jailed, and the turbo diesel industry more or less collapsed in America. Volkswagen was forced to pay tens of billions of dollars worldwide to cover the costs, and their image has yet to fully heal from the catastrophe.

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