The 10 Largest Automotive Recalls of All Time

We Americans have high expectations for the products we buy, especially for our vehicles. We want our cars and trucks to go where we point them, to not burst into flame in our garages, and to keep their various parts attached, even while in motion. But given the number of vehicles recalled over the past decades, we might be better off calling these hopes, rather than expectations…

#10 Ford 1987 (3.6 million vehicles)

Engine-compartment fires caused by faulty fuel-line connectors compelled Ford to issue this recall in 1987. While not the biggest in terms of vehicle numbers, this recall may be the widest: affected vehicles included virtually every model Ford made, including F150-350 trucks, and all Lincoln and Mercury models.

#9 GM 2004 (3.6 million vehicles)

From 1999 to 2004, tailgating took on a new dimension for the 134 customers who suffered minor accidents from collapsing tailgates. Corroded cables were the culprits. In 2004, GM offered to replace the tailgate cables on Silverados, Sierras, Escalades, and Avalanches. In their defense, it should be noted that customers are clearly warned not to stand on open tailgates. At least 134 have not read that part of the owner’s manual.

#8 Volkswagen 1972 (3.7 million vehicles)

Lost visibility can be just as dangerous as fire or a failing seatbelt. Some Volkswagen of America customers found this out the hard way when their windshield wiper arms worked themselves loose and went spinning off into the rain or snow. So in 1972, Volkswagen offered to replace the part in Bugs built between 1949 and 1969.

#7 Honda 1995 (3.7 million vehicles)

In 1995, American Honda Motor Co. dealt with a serious concern in some of its models. Cracked and disintegrating safety-belt release buttons were causing belts to fail or-just as potentially dangerous-trapping passengers in their cars after an accident. The recall included Civic, Prelude, Accord, Acura, Legend, Integra, and NSX models.

#6 GM 1973 (3.7 million vehicles)

The ability to control where your car actually goes is important. GM saw the truth of this in 1973 when they agreed to install engine shields to prevent stones from disabling the steering assembly. 18 models were affected: Centurion, Electra, Estate Wagon, LeSabre, Riviera, Belair, Biscayne, Brookwood, Caprice, Impala, Kingswood, Kingswood Estate, Townsmen, Olds 88 and 98, Bonneville, Grand Ville, and Catalina.

#5. Ford 1971 (4.1 million vehicles)

Seatbelt shoulder harnesses on 1970 and ’71 Ford Rancheros, Lincolns, Mercurys, and Fords (yes, there was at one time a Ford Ford) had an annoying tendency to fray and detach from the metal holding it to the frame. And though few drivers were even wearing seatbelts back then, Ford did the right thing and issued the recall.

#4 GM 1981 (5.8 million vehicles)

Some drivers learned the hard way that suspension bolts in certain GM models had a way of wiggling themselves loose. The result? The loss of ability to steer the car. In 1981, GM offered to replace the dubious bolts in the Century, Regal, El Camino, Malibu, Monte Carlo, Caballero, Cutlass, Grand Prix, and Lemans.

#3. GM 1971 (6.7 million vehicles)

In 1971, some GM customers got the ride of their lives as engine mounts began separating from frames and falling back onto throttles. The models with these rocket-like tendencies included Belair, Brookwood, Camaro, Caprice, Chevrolet, Chevy II, G Series, Impala, Kingswood, Nova, P Series, C Series, and Townsmen.

#2. Ford 1996 (8.6 million vehicles)

In 1996, after customers complained of fires caused by faulty ignition systems, Ford Motor Co. recalled vehicles including 1998-’93 Escorts, Mustangs, Tempos, Thunderbirds, Cougars, Crown Vics, Grand Marquis, Lincoln Town Cars, Aerostars, Broncos, and F-series trucks.

#1 Ford 2008 (12 million vehicles)

In February of 2008, Ford issued the industry’s largest-ever recall, affecting Lincoln and Mercury SUVs, pickups, cars, and vans of model years ’93 to ’04. The lowly cruise-control switch was behind this mother-of-all do-overs. It had a nasty habit of catching fire, sometimes hours after the vehicle had been parked and turned off. Owner response, however, has been slow, so in a rare move Ford reissued the recall in September of 2008 for the 5 million vehicles still unrepaired.

Other recalls stand out in our automotive memory-exploding Ford Pintos and GM trucks with side-saddle gas tanks, for example-but these 10, affecting 55.5 million vehicles, represent the biggest so far. But we Americans have high expectations, and records here don’t last long.

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