Defects of Doom! Recalls and Fireballs! Horrors on the Highway! There are lots of things you could call this list, but you're alive to call it anything at all because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was founded in 1970, and part of its mission was to make manufacturers stop building firebombs on wheels and passing them off on unsuspecting consumers. Some defects are huge but not all that terrifying, like Volkswagen's 1972 recall of 3.7 million vehicles built from 1949 to 1969 because of loose windshield wipers. Um, not that scary. General Motors' 2014 ignition switch recall scandal got lots of press. It only affected 2.6 million vehicles, although it was believed to be responsible for 13 deaths. So, kind of scary.
The 10 items that remain on this list, however, are truly terrifying troubles! Read at your own risk.
Toyota's reputation for safety (and boring blandness) was so firmly in place that when its cars started to speed up on their own, terrifying drivers and causing 31 deaths, the auto blog Jalopnik tagged it "beige bites back." In a scramble to protect its reputation, Toyota tried the ever popular "blame the victim" maneuver, saying people weren't driving right. Then they blamed an innocent floor mat, issuing a recall to fix floor mats in 2009. Really, Toyota? It finally had to fess up in 2010 and issue a recall for the sticky pedal mechanism. In total, 9 million cars were recalled. The incident still haunts the company; in 2014, Toyota paid a $1.2 billion settlement for misleading investigators.
In the 1990s, tire manufacturer Firestone made a boatload of faulty tires with tread that separated from the steel belts. Ford had the bad luck (or bad judgment) to fit these tires on their popular Explorer SUVs as standard equipment. Now, in the 90s, SUVs were everywhere, and they were very rarely used for either sport or utility. So the unsuspecting driver would be on his way to the mall, like usual, and the tire would blow. The driver, not being an off-road expert in recovery maneuvers, would jerk the steering wheel, and the Explorer would roll over. This resulted in about 200 deaths. There were accusations of under-inflating the tires, but in the end, 6.5 million Firestone tires were recalled, and Ford offered to replace an additional 13 million tires.
So, let's say you're driving along, doo-dee-doo, when you begin to smell something funny. "Am I driving past a paper pulping plant?" you ask yourself. Or "Is someone burning refuse?" Before you get a third guess, your car is on fire. Cruise control switches built by Texas Instruments (yes, the same folks responsible for your first fancy calculator) and used in Ford cars and trucks built between 1991 and 2004 — a total of 14.9 million vehicles — would short-out and catch fire. The exciting part was, you didn't even have to be using cruise control for the fiery fun to begin! And that, friends, is both terrifying and the largest recall in history.
One of the earliest recalls was a real humdinger. The engine mounts in a slew of GM cars with big, burly V-8 engines would give way. In case you're not exactly clear on the purpose of an engine mount, it holds the engine in place inside your car. So when that's gone, let the good times begin. The engine would twist under the hood, causing the car to accelerate when you really didn't want it to. For maximum fun, the now-crooked engine could also disable the brake assist. And when you brought it into the dealership to rectify the situation, the mechanic didn't actually replace the mounts with something stronger. He just anchored the engine to the firewall so when the mounts failed, the engine couldn't move and twist. But hey, the fix only cost $30!
Toyota made unintended acceleration famous, but Audi was into it way before Toyota. In the 1980s, the Audi 5000 was outta here (even if it didn't mean to be). The driver would shift out of park and plan on easing out of the driveway or parking space like a regular, well-adjusted human being normally would — and that's when the car would take off on its own. And just like Toyota, it took some time to get this one right. Audi recalled the cars three times, in 1982, 1983, and 1987, before getting it right. Or maybe they just threw in the towel — Audi stopped selling the 5000 in the United States in 1988. Eh, only 389,102 cars were affected by the problem, anyway.
This recall is most likely to be terrifying to NASCAR drivers: In the early 1970s, stones could get lodged between the steering assembly and the frame, preventing the car from turning left. The horror! While it was mostly inconvenient, and it was even a cheap and easy thing for GM to fix, it was probably more than a little scary to anyone who suddenly couldn't get the car to do what they asked. The 1973 recall affected 3.7 million vehicles, probably none of which were NASCAR race cars. Maybe some current Republican members of Congress are still driving these cars. You see, they can't go left ... oh, never mind.
You're in your house, in your bed, sleeping soundly. Your Ford vehicle is in your garage, doing the same, resting peacefully in park. Until the demon-possessed ignition in your car starts itself up, shorts out the electrical system and melts the steering column. If you were lucky, this is what you found the next morning when you headed out to the garage to leave for work. If you weren't lucky, your house had burned down. For real. Ford put this ignition into 7.9 million vehicles built between 1988 and 1993, and then didn't recall them all until 1996. Amazingly, despite the lag time, no one died from this particular defect.
Not all of the scariest defects happened in the bad old days. The 2013 Ford Escape had fuel lines that were cracking and spilling gasoline onto the engine, which, as you may know, is really, really hot. As you may also know (because you're not a brick or a leaf or some other brainless thing), hot gasoline combusts. That means engine fires. Luckily, the recall system is firmly in place in the modern era, and manufacturers like Ford Motor Company are realizing the value of getting on top of this stuff before it becomes a big deal. Only about 11,500 Escapes needed to be recalled, and no one was hurt.
You don't have to drive for very long before you lose control of the car for the first time. Whether it's sliding across ice or hydroplaning on the highway like a one-ton jet ski, it's like an out of body experience. You can't steer the car; you just have to hold on and hope for traction, which you generally find pretty quickly. That is, unless the out-of-control situation is caused by a suspension bolt coming loose and disabling the steering column. Traction isn't going to save you in that case; you just have to hope for a soft landing. In 1981, GM recalled 5.8 million cars with this issue.
When you look at this list, you realize Ford and fire have been fighting it out for decades. One of the most famous recalls of all time involved the 1971 to 1975 Ford Pinto (and don't forget its friend, the nearly identical Mercury Bobcat!), which was recalled in 1978 because the gas tank could rupture in the event of a rear-end collision. That's terrifying enough to make this list, but the truly terrifying thing was the attitude of Ford brass at the time. They crunched the numbers and realized it was cheaper to pay settlements to people who were injured or killed by the defect than it was to redesign the fuel tank and do a recall to replace it. They probably didn't figure in the cost of public outrage in that meeting.
The CarStuff guys explore why there aren't more cool-looking, provocative cars with new features that make you gasp. Read more at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Most Terrifying Vehicle Manufacturing Defects
When tasked with finding 10 terrifying car defects, I learned that there is something like 500 recalls every year in recent years. Most of them are really, really, really not terrifying at all. They're almost all little fixes; cheap and easy things. Manufacturers have finally learned (though not GM, apparently) that it's a lot easier to bring people and their cars into the dealership for a wee repair-and-replace maneuver than it is to wait for things to go horribly wrong on the highway. Some of the biggest recalls in history were also decidedly unscary, like Honda's recall of seatbelt buckles, for instance. Little pieces would break off and fall inside the slot, and then the buckle would get stuck. That seems inconvenient and, maybe at worst, frustrating. Not terrifying. Hardly the stuff of horror movies.
- Atiyeh, Clifford. "Recall Throwdown: Analyzing Automakers' Recall History in the Past 30 Years — Who Is Worst?" Car and Driver. April 24, 2014. (July 9, 2014) http://blog.caranddriver.com/recall-throwdown-analyzing-automakers-recall-history-in-the-past-30-years-who-is-worst/
- AutoMechanicSchools.net. "Top 10 Most Infamous Car Recalls Ever." (July 9, 2014) http://www.automechanicschools.net/blog/top-10-most-infamous-car-recalls-ever/
- Bell, Claes. "The 8 most infamous car recalls in history." Bankrate.com. 2010. (July 9, 2014) http://www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/the-8-most-infamous-car-recalls-in-history-2.aspx
- Consumer Reports. "Top 10 largest car recalls in American history." Oct. 12, 2012. (July 9, 2014) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2012/10/top-10-largest-car-recalls-in-american-history/index.htm
- Isidore, Chris. "Toyota's huge fine won't dent its $60 billion cash pile." CNN Money. March 19, 2014. (July 9, 2014) http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/19/news/companies/toyota-cash-pile/
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (July 15, 2014) http://www.nhtsa.gov/
- Wallace, Gregory. "Biggest auto recalls ever." CNN Money. May 27, 2014. (July 9, 2014) http://money.cnn.com/2014/05/27/autos/biggest-auto-recalls/
- Wendler, Andrew. "10 Largest Auto Recalls in History." MSN Autos. (July 9, 2014) http://editorial.autos.msn.com/10-largest-auto-recalls-in-history
- Wilson, Kevin A. "Why Are There So Many Car Recalls?" Popular Mechanics. April 30, 2013. (July 15, 2014) http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/news/industry/why-are-there-so-many-car-recalls-15413366