Four-Wheeled Flubs: The Eight Biggest Automotive Scandals of all Time
Caught up in the midst of it all, Volkswagen’s recent diesel emissions scandalseems historically bad. The company has apologized, and is carrying on business as usual, but this kind of widespread, systemic disregard for the law is bad news for the world’s new largest automaker.
But despite the impending fines, sanctions, and legal action, this is hardly the first or the most deadly automotive scandal. In fact, there are several more (some in recent memory) that challenge “dieselgate” for scope and organizational incompetence.
If you’re looking for a thorough takedown of “Government Motors” or any of the post-recession bailouts, look elsewhere. Join us as we take a look back at eight of the biggest mechanical scandals the automotive world has ever seen.
Unsafe at Any Speed: The demise of the Chevrolet Corvair
Chevrolet’s infamous Corvair was an automotive anomaly at the time. With a rear-mounted flat-6-cylinder engine, it was essentially an American Porsche. But almost no one remembers the Corvair as a quirky, bow-tied sports sedan, because in 1965, consumer protection activist Ralph Nader released his book Unsafe at Any Speed, a thorough takedown of the safety-related shortcomings of the American auto industry, and the Corvair was at the crux of his campaign.
Due to an inherently unstable swing axle suspension design, a tire-pressure differential system designed to induce understeer and combat oversteer, and the removal of a front anti-sway bar by Chevrolet engineering management, Nader dubbed the Corvair “the leading candidate for the un-safest-car title.” Sales immediately dropped from almost 220,000 in 1965 to less than 15,000 in 1968, and the subsequent public outrage prompted the signing of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966.
‘The barbecue that seats four’: the Ford Pinto fuel tank debacle
If you remember driving in the 1970s and 80s, there was one rule of the road that everyone seemed to follow: steer clear if you see a Pinto. Ford’s wildly-popular economy car sold extremely well after the fuel crisis of the early 70s, thanks to its space-efficient design, above-average gas mileage, and low purchase price. But Ford was hiding a deadly secret – one that makes emissions test cheating seem like an honest mistake.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated the Pinto from 1974 onward, taking action in 1977 after finding that the Pinto’s fuel tank could rupture in a crash, resulting in deadly fires from spilled fuel. The tank sat between the rear axle and the rear bumper, and the fuel filler neck could break in a rear end collision. The NHTSA also found that not only did Ford know about this problem, but they deliberately neglected to engineer a redesign after conducting a cost-benefit analysis that determined that it was cheaper to pay off possible lawsuits than to pay for a fix for the problem. If that’s not worse than cheating on emissions tests, we don’t know what is.
Four rings floored:60 Minutes and Audi’s ‘unintended acceleration’ problem
Audi almost didn’t make it into the 21st century in America thanks to one poorly-reported special on 60 Minutes. During the period of 1982 to 1987, Audi issued recalls for a series of 5000 models with reported incidents of unintended acceleration that would occur suddenly. The incidents were reportedly linked to six deaths and almost 700 accidents. The NHTSA was also investigating another 50 models from 20 different manufacturers for the same problem, but the folks at 60 Minutes didn’t bother or care to check that out.
In a special called “Out of Control” that aired in 1986, 60 Minutes interviewed six people that had sued Audi for the unintended acceleration. They even went so far as to create a dramatic reenactment of the incident, but failed to disclose that they had engineered the car to replicate the behavior for the special. Audi eventually issued a recall to spread the pedals further apart, even though “user error” was determined to be the cause of the incidents. Audi is lucky that they recovered from the “scandal,” but have now become one of the strongest and most popular German brands.
Separation anxiety: Firestone Tires and the Ford Explorer
Ford and Firestone had a close relationship almost from their respective founding. As the largest American automaker and the largest tire company, they had a lucrative relationship for the majority of the 20th century, even being linked in marriage by William Clay Ford Sr. and Martha Parke Firestone in 1947. But in May of 2000, everything changed.
Firestone already had a tarnished reputation from a 1970s scandal that involved their 500 radial tires and a tendency for tread separation, so when the NHTSA contacted both Ford and Firestone about a high rate of tire failure on Explorer, Mercury Mountaineer and Mazda Navajo models, the future seemed very bleak. Ford investigated the problem, and found that 15-inch tires had very high tread separation rates, especially those made in Decatur, IL. The tires could rupture at speed, causing an estimated 250 deaths and thousands of injuries. Ford was able to place most of the blame on Firestone, but the Explorer was especially prone to rollover accidents thanks to its top-heavy design. The pair of companies faced many lawsuits, and Firestone recalled 2.8 million tires. Nowadays, Ford partners with Bridgestone for most of their new tires.
Braking news: Toyota and Lexus’s runaway car problem
It started off small for Japan’s largest automaker, but what seemed like a minor issue quickly ballooned into a massive recall. From 2002 to 2009, many defect petitions were made to the NHTSA regarding Toyota and Lexus models’ tendency to unintentionally accelerate, but most were determined to be the cause of user error. Toyota issued a minor fix by bringing in all of the affected cars and asking owners to switch out all-weather mats to keep the pedals clear.
Then, in August of 2009, California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor was traveling with his family in San Diego in a loaner Lexus ES350 when the car lost all brake function and accelerated out of control as Saylor was passing a truck on the highway. Everyone in the vehicle was killed, and the crash gained national coverage. From that point onwards, Toyota issued 7 separate recalls that totaled almost 10 million vehicles, for which they switched out floor mats and carpet covers that caused “pedal entrapment.”
But the problem was far from fixed, and in 2013, a former Toyota employee released a personal statement that accused Toyota of covering up facts and tricking government officials. The Justice Department investigated the issue from 2010 onwards, and handed Toyota a $1.2 billion penalty for issuing misleading statements to the NHTSA. Toyota also had to pay another $1.2 billion dollars in a class action lawsuit to Toyota drivers that claimed their vehicles lost value from the scandal. Talk about a sticky situation!
Ignition condition: GM’s ignition switch fiasco
If you’ve followed automotive news at all over the last year and a half, chances are you’re very familiar with this particular scandal already. In February of 2014, General Motors recalled about 800,000 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models for a problem with the ignition switch that could cause the engine to shut off while driving, thereby preventing airbags from inflating and all power-assisted systems from functioning.
The problem ballooned to congressional action, and resulted in the recall of nearly 30 million vehicles worldwide. GM CEO Mary Barra was forced into the firestorm, which has resulted in up to 169 deaths. GM was aware of the problem at least a decade before the recall, but Barra and company were largely able to deflect the blame on the ways of “old GM” before the government bailout. Despite a $900 million fine and an additional $575 million in civil lawsuit compensation, GM’s sales and product lineup are stronger than ever. It seems the American car buying public has a very limited short term memory.
Airbag blowout: Honda and Takata’s record-setting recall
The Takata airbag recall has been the largest in history, with close to 34 million vehicles recalled worldwide that use the defective airbags. In the center of this scandal, however, is Honda, who owned a controlling stake in Takata until recently, and took much of the brunt of the media’s coverage of the scandal.
According to Takata, the faulty airbags are related to more than 100 injuries and 8 deaths among Hondas alone, and countless more among other automakers including BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Mazda, Nissan, General Motors, and Toyota. If it weren’t for the other automakers affected, Honda may have had it much worse in the public eye, but this scandal (coupled with falling profits) recently cost the job of their CEO.
V-Trouble-U: the ongoing Volkswagen diesel scandal
As details come flooding out of what’s being called one of the biggest automotive scandals ever, things are getting worse and worse for Volkswagen. As I type this, CEO Martin Winterkorn has resigned from his post, but VW’s troubles are far from over. According to a report, the “defeat device” that was programmed into the diesel cars’ ECU to detect when emissions tests were being performed and to adjust emission levels accordingly has been known about for over a year.
We’ve learned a lot about the “how” and the general scope of the deception, but the big question on everyone’s mind is simple: why? I suppose we’ll find out in time.
This article originally appeared on New York Daily News.