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Failure to Recall: Investigating GM

Ignition switches, parking fails: Recalled cars

The Recall Rodeo
General Motors headquarters, April 1, 2014, Detroit
Getty Images

On May 15, 2014, General Motors announced that it had issued five recalls, affecting approximately 2.7 million vehicles, at a possible cost of as much as $200 million. The announcement came on the heels of the automaker's March 31 recall, in which the company notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that it would recall over one million cars.

At issue in the March recall was the electric power steering assist, which according to the company's website could stop working. The recall affected the Chevrolet Malibu and the Pontiac G6, as well as service parts installed in vehicles that had been the subjects of a separate 2010 recall. In other words, this is not General Motors' first visit to the recall rodeo, and many other major automobile manufacturers have been there too.

Since 1969, millions of cars have been recalled after being deemed threats to drivers, passengers and pedestrians. What follows is a list of recalls that have made headlines over the last 40-plus years. Included are the insights of Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, whose contributions shed light on the specifics.

Read ahead and see CNBC.com's list of noteworthy car recalls of the past and the present.

By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 16 May 2014

1971 Ford Pinto
Source: Wikipedia

The Pinto will forever be remembered as the car that burst into flames in rear-end collisions. It had a poorly designed fuel tank that Popular Mechanics said would have cost $11 per vehicle to fix, but when Ford compared that cost to the cost of paying out settlements, it chose the cheaper option of paying out settlements, according to Time magazine.

Ford finally recalled 1.4 million Pintos in 1978, and the car was discontinued two years later. But Karl Brauer said that despite the public relations disaster, the Pinto was nowhere near the death trap that it was made out to be. "The number of fatalities related to vehicle fires was about the same as other small cars from the era," he said. "The negative publicity surrounding the case forever, and incorrectly, branded the Pinto as a firebomb waiting to go off."

1980 Ford Thunderbird
1980 Ford Thunderbird
Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Consumer Reports, the Ford Motor Company has been involved in the three largest car recalls in history. Among these was a 1980 recall in which 21 million cars and trucks manufactured between 1970 and 1980 were sidelined because of transmissions that failed to engage the park function, including the Ford Thunderbird.

"A widespread issue with the shift linkage meant that over 20 million Ford products could randomly fall out of park and into reverse, a dangerous proposition to be sure," Brauer said. "The sight of a driverless, late-1970s Ford going around in circles in reverse was more common than it should have been."

According to the NHTSA, other vehicles affected by this recall were the Ford Fairmont, the Mercury Cougar and the Mercury Zephyr, all from the 1980 model year.

1981 Chevrolet Malibu
Source: Wikipedia

In 1981, General Motors recalled more than 6 million vehicles. These included the Chevrolet Malibu, as well as every other midsize car from the model years 1978 through 1981. According to the Associated Press, two bolts attaching the rear-wheel lower control arms to the frames could rust, break and fall out, a potentially fatal situation.

"A defective bolt in the 1981 Malibu's suspension could loosen and disconnect the steering wheel from the front wheels," Brauer said. "The term 'some assembly required' isn't supposed to apply to a vehicle, especially while you're driving it."

According to the NHTSA, other vehicles affected by this recall were the Buick Century and Regal, the Chevrolet El Camino and Monte Carlo, the GMC Caballero, the Oldsmobile Cutlass and the Pontiac Grand Prix and Lemans, all from the 1978 to 1981 model years.

1985 Ford Ranger
Source: Wikipedia

In April 1985, the Ford Motor Company recalled that model year's Ranger. The NHTSA's report said "the nylon fuel supply and return lines are improperly routed along the frame side rail and could contact the universal joint on the front driveshaft."

In plain English, this meant that there was a good chance of a fuel leak, followed by a fire.


2002 Honda Civic
Source: Honda Motors

In April 2013, six major automakers were forced to recall approximately 3.4 million cars, including the 2002 Honda Civic. According to the Associated Press, the front passenger airbags in all the recalled cars were made by the Takata company of Japan, and had faulty inflator mechanisms that could send high-velocity shrapnel flying into the cabin.

"An airbag is designed to reduce the risk of injury in a crash," Brauer said. "But the 2002 Civic had the potential to injure both front passengers with flying metal shards if the airbags deployed."

According to the NHTSA, other Honda vehicles affected by this recall were the CR-V from the 2002 and 2003 model years and the 2002 Odyssey. Vehicles manufactured byToyota, Nissan, Mazda, BMW AG and General Motors were also recalled for theTakata airbag defect.

2004 Toyota Corolla
2003-2004 Toyota Corolla S
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Toyota announced its second recall of 2014 in April, when it identified multiple models with possible defects. According to CNN, one of the models was the 2004 Corolla, which was being recalled due to concerns about its airbag spiral cable.

Karl Brauer said that in the affected models, the danger was that the cars might randomly deploy the airbags due to a short circuit. "The only thing worse than being in a situation where an airbag deploys is being in a situation where an airbag shouldn't deploy, but does," he said.

According to the NHTSA, other Toyota vehicles affected by this recall were the Lexus SC, the Corolla Matrix, the Sequoia and the Tundra, from the 2002 through 2004 model years.

2007 General Motors Pontiac G5
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In February, General Motors recalled approximately 778,000 cars in North America, including the 2007 Pontiac G5. According to the New York Times, the company said that a "jarring event," such as an accident, or even just a heavy keychain hanging off of the car keys, could potentially shut off the ignition and stop the airbags from deploying.

According to the Detroit News, General Motors spokesman Alan Adler said that it was aware of six fatalities from these cases. "All of these crashes occurred off-road and at high speeds, where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high regardless of air bag deployment," he said. "In addition, failure to wear seat belts and alcohol use were factors in some of these cases."

According to the NHTSA, other vehicles affected by this recall were the 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt, the 2006-2011 Chevrolet HHR, the 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice, the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion and the 2007-2010 Saturn Sky.

2012 Dodge Charger
Getty Images

March 2014 was a big month for car recalls. In addition to the problems General Motors was having, Chrysler was forced to recall approximately 49,000 Dodge Chargers from 2011 and 2012, due to halogen headlight connectors that could overheat and disable them, according to the Associated Press.

"Excessive heat can cause components to fail," Brauer said. "This is one of many examples of an overheating problem that has nothing to do with a vehicle's traditional cooling system."


2014 Porsche 911 GT3
2014 Porsche 911 GT3
Source: Porsche

The Porsche 911 GT3 has traditionally been one of the last cars you would expect to see involved in a recall. However, in March 2014, the company recalled every car in that year's limited run of 785, according to Autoweek, after an initially unidentified problem caused the engine to burst into flames.

The problem was eventually traced to a loose screw connection, and according to the NHTSA, Porsche said that it would have dealers install new engines with fixed connections, free of charge. This may seem like an unusually generous step for a company to take, but Brauer said that Porsche has a reputation to protect. "The Porsche 911 holds an iconic position in the automotive world due to its 50-year history of providing exceptional performance," he said.

CNBC tells the story of General Motors, under intense scrutiny amid revelations it knew of a potentially dangerous defect for years before ordering a recall. Correspondent Phil LeBeau takes viewers inside the unfolding scandal and reports on a company in crisis.

Failure to Recall: Investigating GM premieres Sunday, May 18 at 10:00p ET/PT