Building a car is hard. There are a lot of parts that need to fit together in the right order and function perfectly to make it all work. It’s complicated, but when auto makers get it right, those vehicles are typically lauded as being great and reliable and treasured by their owners. When manufacturers get it wrong, at best the car becomes the butt of a good joke, and at worst the vehicle can be seriously dangerous.
When things go awry, manufacturers will issue a recall to repair the problem. Here are recalls from the pages of history that are humorous, well-known and some that are just terrifyingly unacceptable.
Mazda 6 – Spiders
Sharing your car is generally a good thing. Sharing your car with spiders that can cause a fire is not. In 2014, Mazda announced that is was recalling 42,000 of their Mazda6 sedans because of gasoline-crazed spiders.
Apparently, Yellow Sac spiders are attracted to the hydrocarbons in gasoline, they can get inside the Mazda’s fuel tank vent lines and spin webs. Those webs can block the lines which over-pressurizes the fuel tank causing cracks. Cracks in the fuel tank are definitely undesirable. Gasoline is far more beneficial in the tank and the engine than dripping on the ground and causing your car to erupt in flames.
Mercedes-Benz – Fire
Unrelated to nesting, gasoline drinking spiders, Mercedes-Benz was forced to recall over 1 million cars and SUVs due to a risk of fire. According to Mercedes-Benz, a faulty fuse is the culprit and caused 51 vehicles to burn to the ground.
In situations where the vehicle doesn’t start on the first try, the faulty fuse can cause the wiring to the starter motor to overheat which can melt the insulation and cause nearby components to catch fire. Sitting next to a fire should be relaxing and luxurious, sitting next to your luxury car while it’s on fire is not.
Subaru Vehicles – Random Engine Start-Up
This is a recall straight out of the Twilight Zone. Imagine looking out into your driveway and seeing your nice, new Subaru sitting there. The keys are in the other room, in the dish, just waiting for you to grab them and go for a drive. And as you stare at your pride and joy, thinking about that drive… the engine starts all on it’s own, with no one in, on or around the car.
Subaru recalled 47,419 cars because of a problem with the key fob. If you dropped it, and they landed just right, it could cause a malfunction in which the engine would start, turn off and repeat at random times. Weird.
Ford Pinto – Fire
The Ford Pinto is the poster child for catastrophic automotive recalls. It embodies everything that’s bad about the automotive industry and represents a truly terrible era of Detroit cars. The problems, recalls, lawsuits, conspiracy theories and hype surrounding the Pinto is the stuff of legend, but in a nutshell, the fuel tank was positioned in such a way that if the Pinto was in a rear-end collision, it could break, spill fuel and cause the car to catch fire.
In total, Ford recalled 1.5 million Pintos and a total of 117 lawsuits were filed against Ford. It remains one of the most famous recalls in history.
Toyota Camry, Venza And Avalon – More Spiders
What’s the deal with spiders in cars? Is it an attempt to take over the world through automotive sabotage or do they just love a good car? Either way, in 2013 Toyota issued a recall for 870,000 Camrys, Venzas and Avalons, as spiders had invaded once again.
Spiders had been found inside the air conditioning units where their webs blocked drain tubes causing condensation to drip onto the airbag control module. Water and electronics don’t mix, and the dripping water in the A/C system caused the module to short circuit which could actually set off the airbags while you’re driving! It’s a case of either poor design or some very crafty spiders.
Toyota RAV4 – Cut Seat Belts
Being in a car crash is scary, being in a car crash and suddenly realizing that your seat belt isn’t holding you in is even scarier. That was the case for 3+ million Toyota Rav4s.
In 2016, Toyota found that the rear seat belts were getting cut in car accidents leaving passengers completely unrestrained in a crash. The problem wasn’t the seat belt but rather the metal frame of the rear seats. In an accident, the frame could slice the belt rendering it completely useless. Toyota issued a fix for the problem, a simple resin cover to prevent the metal frame from touching the belt.
Honda Odyssey – Backwards Badges
An average car has about 30,000 parts. Assembling all of those parts, in the correct order and location is a complex undertaking. Major automotive manufacturers are apparently not immune to the challenges of correct assembly, as Honda found out in 2013.
One of the finishing touches of car assembly is installing the badges, and on the 2013 Odyssey minivan, Honda managed to put it on the wrong side which prompted a recall. Serious? No. Embarrassing? Yup! Honda advised owners that the badge on the wrong side of the lift-gate could affect resale values as it might appear that the car had been in an accident and repaired incorrectly. Bummer.
Volkswagen And Audi – Diesel Emission Debacle
Diesel-gate. You knew we were going to get to this one! By now, everyone should be familiar with the massive scandal, cover-up, and recall surrounding Volkswagen and their diesel engines. But just in case you missed it, here’s a very brief summary.
Volkswagen, and subsidiary Audi, had been touting the efficiency of their diesel engines for years. Great fuel mileage, low emissions, great power. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Volkswagen had applied a “cheat code” in the engine software to activate emissions controls during testing that were not active during normal driving. The result of this was 4.5 million vehicles recalled billions of dollars in fines and jail time for executives and engineers.
Koenigsegg Agera – Tire Pressure Monitoring
When you spend $2.1 million on a hypercar with over 900-horsepower and a top speed in excess of 250 mph, you would expect it to be absolutely perfect. Every bolt polished, every mechanical system finely tuned and all the electronics to be flawless in their execution. You’d be right to expect that, but that wasn’t the case for U.S.-spec Koenigsegg Ageras.
The tire pressure monitoring system had faulty programming which prevented the accurate display of tire pressures. Something that is pretty important in a car capable of sub-3 second 0-60 mph runs. Fortunately, the recall only affected one car. Yes, that’s right, one car, the only Agera sold in the U.S.
Toyota – Unintended Acceleration
Oh boy, this was a bad one… back in 2009, it was reported that various Toyota cars and SUVs could experience unintended acceleration. That is, the car would begin to accelerate without driver control.
Toyota responded to an increasing number of reports about the issue by asking customers to remove their floor mats or have their dealerships zip-tie the floor mats in place. This didn’t fix the problem and after a series of tragic accidents, Toyota was forced to recall close to 9 million cars, trucks and SUVs to replace sticking throttle pedals. It was revealed that Toyota knew about the problem, and could have prevented the deaths of customers, but covered up the issue until it was investigated.
Ford Granada – Wrong Color Turn Signals
Malaise-Era (1972-1983) cars are generally terrible. A bunch of bland, bloated, blah, beige land barges that did nothing exceptional and proved that mediocrity could be a design language AND engineering principle.
One of the malaise-y-est cars from that time was the Ford Granada, a boxy boat of a car that was styled using only a ruler. The Granada did have redeeming options, you could have a choice of two V8s, the 302 or 351 cubic inch motors. A simple car with simple intents, but Ford made a mistake, they installed the wrong colored turn signal lenses and had to issue a recall to replace them with a true amber lens as per the federal guidelines.
Ford – Cruise Control Defects
Making auto parts and components that are useable on a wide variety of vehicles can save a manufacturer a lot of money. For example, if every car that Ford made had the same rearview mirror, that would save a ton, but, if the common part is catastrophically defective, it can cost a lot of money.
That was the case for Ford with a cruise control switch that could overheat and cause vehicle fires. The part was used in 16 million vehicles over the span of ten years, caused 500 fires and 1,500 complaints. Ford recalled more than 14 million cars in the hopes of fixing the issue.
Chevrolet Sonic – No Brake Pads
In January of 2012, Chevrolet had to make the recall of shame and announce that 4,296 subcompact Sonics were assembled, shipped and put into customer’s hands with missing brake pads. Yes, you read that right, cars were sold to people without all of the brake pads installed.
That’s pretty bad and in the understatement of the year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said the issue could lead to a “reduction in brake performance, increasing the likelihood of an accident.” Luckily no one was hurt or was in an accident related to the brake pad issue.
General Motors – Airbag Sensor Module
When you buy a modern car or truck, one of the things you typically consider is how safe the vehicle is in the event of a crash. How many airbags the vehicle has, how the crash structures are engineered, how many advanced safety features it has should all be taken into consideration along with how the vehicle performs under crash testing.
Imagine the shock that GM owners felt when they were contacted and informed that there was a “software glitch” in the airbag sensing and diagnostic module (SDM) which prevents the deployment of the front airbags AND the seatbelt tensioners. In total, 3.6 million cars, trucks, and SUVs were recalled by GM.
Peugeot, Citroen, Renault – Brake Pedal Defect
In a case in which the truth is stranger than fiction, Peugeot, Citroen and Renault had to issue a recall in 2011 because a person in the front passenger seat could accidentally activate the brakes.
The problem occurred in cars that were converted to right-hand drive for the UK market. In doing the conversion, the French auto makers added a crossbar between the brake master cylinder, on the left, to the brake pedal, which was now on the right. The cross-bar was poorly protected allowing the passenger to actually completely stop the cars by activating the brakes!
11 Automobile Companies – Seat Belt Failure
In 1995, 11 automobile companies agreed to recall and repair 7.9 million cars because the Sun exists. It sounds totally crazy but stay with me for a minute as I try and explain this. Takata, yes the airbag manufacturer (we’ll get to them in a few slides), made seat belts that were installed in 9 million cars across 11 car companies between 1985 and 1991.
Those seat belts had a problem, over time the plastic release buttons became brittle and eventually prevented the belt from fully locking, unfortunately resulting in 47 injuries when the belts came loose. The culprit? The UV light from the Sun degraded the plastic causing the failure. Normally, plastics makers use chemical additives to prevent this.
Chrysler Voyager – Speaker Fire
A killer stereo in your car is a “must-have” for many owners. When the stereo actually tries to kill you, that’s likely to be considerably less desirable.
That’s exactly what happened to 238,000 Chrysler Voyager mini-vans made in 2002. A defect in the design of the A/C ducts allowed condensation to build-up and drip onto the stereo. The location of the drip would short circuit the electrical supply to the rear speakers, resulting in the speakers actually catching fire! Gives a whole new meaning to, “cooling-out to a hot track.”
Toyota – Window Switches
The year 2015 saw a major recall from Toyota to the tune of 6.5 million cars worldwide, 2 million of which were U.S. cars. This time the problem was faulty window switches – specifically the driver’s side power window master switch. Toyota stated that the switches had been manufactured without enough lubricating grease. That could lead to the switch overheating and catching fire.
That’s pretty bad and definitely concerning, but it is even more upsetting when you take into account that Toyota recalled 7.5 million cars 3-years prior for the same problem! I’m not an automotive engineer, but it might be time to ditch the switch.
Takata – Defective Airbags
Alright, it’s time to talk about the single largest automotive recall in history, the Takata Airbag Scandal. Moisture and humidity were the probable causes of airbag failure as they destabilized the propellant in the airbag inflator. Takata admitted to mishandling the manufacture of explosive propellants and improperly storing chemicals.
The tragic mishandling of components that are meant to save lives cost 16 people theirs, and resulted in multiple criminal charges, billions of dollars in fines and ultimately Takata Corporation filing for bankruptcy. It’s an inexcusable recall that affected over 45 million cars and counting, as the recall is still underway today.
Volkswagen Jetta – Seat Heaters
If you live in a part of the country that sees cold winters, you’ll understand that heated seats are not just a luxury, they are life. A feature that stands head and toe above all others in an attempt to make harsh snowy winter mornings more bearable.
Volkswagen had a problem with their seat heaters prompting a recall for replacement and modification of how they are installed. Turns out, that the seat heaters could short circuit and catch the seat fabric on fire and burn the driver while they’re operating the car!