The number of automotive recalls last year broke records. Every week it seemed like another automaker was pulling back cars by the millions to fix defects ranging from minor to potentially deadly. But while 2014 led to big recalls becoming the new normal, it pales in comparison to some of the biggest recalls in the past.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released new data today, tracking the total number of recalls over the past few decades. Across the industry in 2014, there were 803 vehicle recalls total involving 63.9 million vehicles, including two of the largest vehicle recalls in history.
Those two were GM's ignition switch defect — not even the first one involving Cobalts but the second one involving older midsize sedans — and Honda's recall for potentially explosive Takata air bags. They total 5.8 million cars for GM and 5.4 million cars for Honda.
GM and Honda's recalls in 2014 land them at numbers four and six on a list of the 10 biggest recalls of all time, according to NHTSA, since 1966. Here they are, in case you're curious:
10. Ford in 1972 — 4.07 million cars for seat belts
The defective seat belts could detach from their buckles, which is bad.
9. Toyota in 2009 — 4.44 million cars for "pedal entrapment"
Or as we all know and love it today, "unintended acceleration." We know how this one went down for Toyota, and how expensive it got for them in the end.
8. Ford in 2009 — 4.5 million cars for a cruise control deactivation switch
This recall affected trucks, SUVs and vans from the early 1990s to late 2000s. A defective Texas Instruments speed control deactivation switch could leak, overheat, burn and start a vehicle fire.
7. Ford in 2005 — 4.5 million cars for a cruise control deactivation switch
More Fords, same problem.
6. Honda in 2014 — 5.4 million cars for airbags
5. General Motors in 1981 — 5.82 million cars for control arms
This affected vehicles from the late 1970s. The rear suspension part could detach and cause the driver to lose control of the car.
4. General Motors in 2014 — 5.87 million cars for an ignition switch defect
This recall affected the Malibu, Grand Am, Alero and other cars. The ignition switch could inadvertently turn to accessory mode during driving, switching off the airbags and potentially causing drivers to lose control.
3. General Motors in 1971 — 6.7 million cars for engine mounts
More than a dozen models from the 1960s and early 1970s had defective engine mounts that could lead to unexpected acceleration, and not the fun kind.
2. Ford in 1996 — 7.9 million cars for a defective ignition
At the time the largest voluntary recall ever, Ford recalled the cars because of an ignition switch that could cause steering column fires, even when cars were turned off.
1. Ford in 1981 — 21 million cars for rolling away
Not a ton of people remember this one today, but for more than a decade Ford was dogged with reports and lawsuits that its cars had defective parking gear that caused them to slip into reverse and roll away. At least 98 fatalities were reported, and Ford settled the matter not with repairs but by mailing owners a warning label they could stick on their dashboards.
Finally, let's look at some of the recall data for the last 20 years. These two graphics from NHTSA break the recalls out into the total quantity of vehicles recalled and the actual number of recall orders themselves.
(They're split into "influenced," which means they were initiated by NHTSA, and "uninfluenced," which means they were ordered by the manufacturer themselves. Add the two columns together to get the totals.)
Obviously, we had a huge jump in recalls in 2014. After it came out that GM knew about the ignition switch defect on the Cobalt and other small cars for years, other automakers took no chances with safety and began calling back cars at the slightest sign of trouble. GM also ordered a top-down review of defects, which led to even more recalls. Add on top of that the recalls related to Takata airbags and you have the perfect storm for a ton of cars getting called in for repairs.
It's fascinating how the vast majority of recalls over the past 20 years have been prompted by automakers themselves, rather than NHTSA, a fact that I don't doubt will be used by the agency as they seek more teeth and a bigger budget.
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