The 10 Biggest Car Recalls Of All Time

Henry Ford Museum

Earlier this week, it was announced that Toyota officially surpassed General Motors as the world’s leading auto manufacturer, reclaiming a title it lost to the American company in 2011 following a series of huge recalls that tarnished the public’s perception of the manufacturer.Toyota’s triumph may be short-lived, however. On Thursday the company announced the recall of 1.3 million cars due to a risk of airbags deploying without warning.

Jump ahead to see the recalls >

The timing could not have been worse for the Japanese automaker. One of the major reasons Toyota lost its title in the first place was the fiasco over uncontrolled acceleration caused by faulty floor mats.

Dozens of people may have been killed because of this. Subsequent recalls and lawsuits could cost the company as much as $5 billion, and damaged its reputation enough to cause people to choose other automakers.

Recalls are actually far more common than many people realise. In the past three years alone, several thousand have taken place, although most of these affected a relatively small number of vehicles. The truly massive recalls, like the Toyota sudden acceleration issue, occur far less frequently. Of the 10 biggest recalls since the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration began compiling data in the 60’s, only two have occurred in the past 10 years.

A review of similar recalls reflects how damaging they can be to company and sales. In 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone recalled millions of tires on several of its models, including the Explorer, the most popular SUV in America at the time. The cars, equipped with Wilderness AT Firestone tires rolled over when the tire tread separated with alarming frequency, potentially causing more than 200 deaths.

Edmunds.com analyst Jeremy Acevedo explained what a disaster the Firestone incident was for Ford.  “A long time leader of the segment, the Explorer’s market share dipped from 20.4% of the Midsize SUV market in 2000 to 17.8% in 2001. That would mark the beginning of the slide in market share for the Explorer that would last for several years.”

While the worst recalls on record are truly massive, affecting several million vehicles and hurting the company’s image, Acevedo explained most cases do not have the same serious negative impact. “Recalls are a part of car ownership and most make no lasting impact on consumer’s perception of the brand, or the brand’s sales.”

In 1981, after complaints of vehicles shifting out of park into reverse and injuring hundreds, the NHTSA forced Ford to take action and deal with the 21 million vehicles that could have potentially been affected by the issue.

Rather than offering to fix the problem, however, Ford was permitted to send warning stickers to owners of the affected models instead. While it was the largest recall of all time, it only cost the company several million dollars — instead of several billion.

Based on data collected from the NHTSA’s recall database, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 biggest car recalls of all time. In some cases, a single cause had several different recall numbers while the manufacturer tried to identify the source of the issue.

In those cases, we counted the different recalls were treated as a single issue. In the case of the 1981 Ford recall, while the automaker never technically issued a recall of its vehicles, it is considered by the NHTSA to be a type of recall, and we treated it accordingly.

These are the largest car recalls all time.

#10 Volkswagen (1972)

#9 Honda (1995)

#8 General Motors (1973)

Vehicles affected: 3.7 million
Issue: Stones entering engine compartment
Components affected:Underbody shields

More than 3.7 million General Motors vehicles from the Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac lines were recalled in 1973.

The problem: stones from graveled and unpaved roads could become stuck in the engine compartment, potentially affecting the driver's ability to steer.

This was corrected by installing a gravel shield over the steering coupling. According to United Press International, the centre for Auto Safety alleged that it had alerted GM to the problem in July 1972, six months before the automaker initiated the recall.

#7 Ford (1972)

Vehicles affected: 4.1 million
Issue: Connecting part in seat belt breaking from wear
Components affected: Seat belt webbing

In 1972, Ford had to recall over four million vehicles to fix a small component called a grommet, which is part of a seat belt. This could break with repeated usage, making it impossible for the driver or passenger to lock in the shoulder harness.

Each grommet cost only a few cents to make, according to a June 1972 Associated Press article. The recall affected most cars produced by Ford for its U.S. lines for the 1970 and 1971 model years, excluding only its Maverick and convertible models.

The problem was easily corrected by replacing the original piece with another made of neoprene.

#6 Toyota (2007-2010)

Vehicles affected: 5.7 million
Issue: Floor mat interfering with accelerator pedal
Components affected: Accelerator pedal

In 2007, Toyota issued a recall on the optional All-Weather Floor Mats Toyota sold for its 2007 and 2008 Camry and Lexus ES 350 models.

These mats could move forward while the car was in motion, causing the accelerator pedal to become stuck.

In early 2009, Toyota issued a second recall, this time for the 2004 Toyota Sienna, in which the carpet cover could also become stuck and lead to unexpected acceleration. Later that year, the company recalled 4.4 million more Toyotas due to the same problem.

This was expanded the next year to include another 1.1 million cars. In late December 2012, Toyota settled a consolidated lawsuit for approximately $1 billion with claimants who alleged economic loss.

The first of hundreds of wrongful death or injury lawsuits was settled in mid-January. As of 2010, at least 89 deaths were found to have been potentially connected to unintended acceleration problems in Toyota cars.

#5 General Motors (1981)

Vehicles affected: 5.8 million
Issue: Fracturing of bolts connecting control arm to frame
Components affected: Rear suspension

In 1981, General Motors recalled 5.8 million vehicles -- from Buick Regals to Chevy Malibus -- due to the fracturing of bolts that connect the lower rear control and the car frame.

All of the vehicles were made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In instances where these bolts did fracture, the control arm would be dropped from the car, leading to a loss of control.

The recall was prompted by reports to GM of 27 accidents resulting in 22 injuries, although none of the injuries were serious. The bolts were replaced in all affected cars for no charge.

#4 General Motors (1971)

#3 Ford (1996)

#2 Ford (1999-2009)

#1 Ford (1981)

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