BBC Autos

The Roundabout Blog

Recall: A carmaker’s scarlet letter

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

  • Damage control

    After years of rebuffing consumer-safety groups, vehicle owners and – most recently – the US government, Chrysler finally agreed on 18 June to recall 2.7m vehicles from the automaker’s Jeep division.

    The action brings some closure to the central complaint – that certain Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs sold in North America in the 1990s and early 2000s were prone to catching fire when struck from behind at low speed – but in the realm of public opinion, where drivers have long memories (Ford Pinto, anyone?), the exact fallout may not be known for years.

    What follows is a survey, in no way conclusive, of some of the most infamous passenger-car and equipment recalls of the past three decades. If nothing else, it should serve to demonstrate automakers’ uncanny ability to bounce back – with some glaring exceptions – from humiliation. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Butler, Wooten and Fryhofer, LLP)

  • Audi: Unintended acceleration (1982, 1983)

    Vehicles affected: 92,000

    Models affected: Audi 5000

    Background: With aspirations to challenge BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen affiliate Audi built the 5000 full-size sedan and wagon, which sold briskly in the US until owners of 5000s equipped with automatic transmissions complained that the accelerator pedal would get stuck behind the floor mat (more on that later in this slideshow). In 1987 Audi added an interlock to prevent the transmission from engaging in a forward or reverse gear from the Park position without the driver’s foot depressing the brake pedal. Still, the public-relations fallout for the fledgling import all but killed US sales for Audi nearly a decade.

    Fast-forward: The interlock device introduced in 1987 would shortly thereafter be adopted by automakers worldwide. Today’s Audi challenges its German sport-luxury counterparts in every vehicle category, and dominates them in terms of sales volume in China. (Audi)

  • Ford: Ignition-switch fire hazard (1996)

    Vehicles affected: 8 million

    Models affected: Ford/Mercury Escort/EXP, Mustang, Tempo/Topaz, Thunderbird/Cougar, Crown Victoria/Grand Marquis, Lincoln Town Car, Aerostar, F-Series and Bronco

    Background: A short circuit in the ignition switches of various Fords could cause device failure at a minimum, smoke and fire in the worst case. Ford insisted that the condition did not constitute a safety hazard, telling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that it would conduct the recall “to avoid a protracted dispute with the agency.”

    Fast-forward: Though it weathered the global financial collapse of 2008-9 without accepting financing from the US government, and has increased its market share worldwide, fire-related recalls have continued to dog Ford – most recently involving its 2013 Escape/Kuga compact crossover, which has been recalled for fuel-line and engine-cooling issues. (Ford Motor)

  • Bridgestone/Firestone: Tire-tread separation (2000, 2001)

    Vehicles affected: 6.4 million

    Models affected: Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer, Ranger, F-Series and Expedition

    Background: Though NHTSA classified it as a “safety improvement campaign” rather than a recall, the replacement of roughly 13m Firestone Wilderness AT tires on Ford pickup trucks and SUVs was one of the biggest news stories of 2000. The tread on the tires was prone to separating, which resulted in some drivers losing control, prompting the top-heavy vehicles to roll over. Ford, citing a loss of confidence in Firestone’s products, spent roughly $3bn to replace the tires on customers’ trucks. Firestone, meanwhile, maintained that Ford’s vehicles were at fault.

    Fast-forward: NHTSA rejected Firestone’s petition to investigate Explorers for faulty handling, which officially exonerated Ford in the case. The acrimonious dissolution of the Ford-Firestone relationship, which had endured for nearly a century, constitutes one of the darkest spots in both companies’ histories. (Erik S. Lesser/Getty)

  • Toyota: Unintended acceleration (2010)

    Vehicles affected: 8 million

    Models affected: Toyota Prius, RAV4, Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Highlander, Tacoma, Tundra, various Lexus models

    Background: Following reports from owners claiming that their vehicles’ accelerator pedals were sticking in place or getting snagged on floor mats, Toyota issued two recalls. The federal and media scrutiny was unprecedented, and even after the US government concluded in 2011 that the cars’ electronics were not at fault for the unintended acceleration, Toyota still faced a number of lawsuits brought by drivers and attorneys general in various states – among them a class action resulting in a settlement valued at over $1bn.

    Fast-forward: Having lost consumer confidence owing to the recalls – as well as production capacity owing to the 2011 earthquake in northeastern Japan – Toyota regained its footing in 2012, becoming again the world’s largest automaker by sales volume. (Toyota Motor Sales)

  • Fisker Automotive: Battery-fire hazard (2011, 2012)

    Vehicles affected: 258

    Models affected: Fisker Karma

    Background: Fisker contracted A123 Systems to supply its Karma plug-in hybrid sedan’s battery pack. Improperly installed hose clamps within the battery were identified as the cause of coolant leaks, and at least one vehicle fire, feverishly covered by the media, was attributed to the condition. Two recall actions were conducted to resolve the issue.

    Fast-forward: Owing in part to the expense and public-relations fallout of the recalls, Fisker and A123, two emblematic start-up companies of the early 21st century, have since filed for bankruptcy protection. (Fisker Automotive)

  • Chrysler: Rear-collision fire hazard (2013)

    Vehicles affected: 2.7 million

    Models affected: Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty

    Background: Led by the Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit founded by American consumer-advocacy pioneer Ralph Nader, NHTSA was petitioned repeatedly to investigate Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty models from the 1990s and early 2000s after collecting reports of fires involving Jeeps that were struck from behind in collisions. NHTSA concluded that the risk was real, calling on Chrysler, Jeep’s corporate parent, to conduct a recall. Chrysler resisted, maintaining in a statement issued on 4 June that no such risk existed. On 18 June, under pressure from consumer groups, Chrysler gave in to NHTSA’s demand and said it would begin to install rigid trailer hitches on the affected vehicles to improve their crash-worthiness.

    Fast-forward: To be determined. (Chrysler Group)