10. Chevrolet Corvair And Unsafe At Any Speed
Introduced for the 1960 model year, the Chevrolet Corvair was General Motors' answer to the growing popularity of small, imported vehicles like the Volkswagen Beetle. Featuring a rear-mounted, air-cooled, flat-six engine, the vehicle was available in a wide variety of body styles, including a sedan, coupe, wagon, and van.
However, the Corvair's infamy comes from its appearance in the first chapter of Ralph Nader's groundbreaking book Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965 that condemned the safety of contemporary vehicles.
Nader argued that the 1960 to 1964 Corvair's swing-axle rear suspension (later models had a different design) could cause the wheel on the inside of a corner to tuck into the body and cause oversteer. Not having a standard front anti-roll bar made the model even more potentially dangerous.
General Motors didn't take kindly to the allegations about the Corvair and allegedly tried to harass him. Nader sued the company for invasion of privacy and won $425,000 in 1970 (about $2.7 million today).
9. Ford Pinto's Exploding Fuel Tanks
In the 1970s, American automakers began introducing smaller vehicles, and the Pinto was Ford's entry into this burgeoning segment of compact models.
Launched for the 1971 model year, the Pinto was available as a hatchback or wagon. Within a few years, reports began trickling into Ford about the compact model catching fire in rear-end crashes. The Pinto's fuel tank was located between the rear axle and back bumper. A lack of crumple room exacerbated the potential for a fuel leak in a collision.
In 1977, Mother Jones magazine published an exposé about the Pinto fires and staged a press conference to push for a government investigation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found the fuel system to be potentially dangerous and ordered Ford to perform a recall that affected 1.4 million Pintos.
The Pinto scandal also resulted in a criminal case of reckless homicide against Ford when the state of Indiana prosecuted the company after three women died in a fire in the vehicle. This was the first time a U.S. company faced murder charges, and the jury found the corporation not guilty.
8. John DeLorean Busted For Selling Cocaine
John DeLorean was the father of the Pontiac GTO and eventually became General Motors' vice president of car and truck production. He left GM in 1973 and created the DeLorean Motor Company in 1975.
Despite creating the DMC-12 that has become an icon of the 1980s, DeLorean's company struggled. In October 1982, he was arrested for possession of 59 pounds of cocaine and allegedly attempting to finance the sale of 220 pounds of the drug for $24 million (roughly $61.5 million today). He would have put the money into the DeLorean Motor Company, which was bankrupt at the time.
DeLorean's lawyers argued that FBI agents had entrapped the automotive executive into the cocaine deal. The jury agreed and found DeLorean not guilty of all charges.
In the years after the DeLorean Motor Company's bankruptcy and the cocaine charges, the former star automotive exec largely receded from the public eye.
7. Audi Unintended Acceleration
In November 1986, a segment on 60 Minutes focused on allegations of sudden acceleration in the Audi 5000. Multiple lawsuits from owners alleged deaths and injuries from the problem, and the German automaker received tons of bad press.
However, when government safety organizations began investigating the problem, they couldn't find a mechanical fault. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report citing human error as the reason for the sudden acceleration. The Audi 5000 had its brake pedal near the accelerator, and both pedals had a similar shape. This made it possible for drivers to step on the wrong one.
As a result of the scandal, Audi's sales in the U.S. plummetted and took years to rebound.
5. Ford Explorer Firestone Tyre Failures
In 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating reports of the treads separating on Firestone tires mounted to the Ford Explorer.
Firestone responded by eventually recalling 14.4 million tires. The rubber was original equipment on the Ford Explorer, Mercury Mountaineer, Ford Ranger, Mazda Navajo, and Mazda B-series, and owners were able to bring their vehicle in for a replacement.
The problem resulted in 271 deaths and over 800 injuries.
Ford and Firestone were inundated with lawsuits over the problem, and it prompted a Congressional investigation. The fallout from the scandal caused Ford and Firestone to end their partnership, and the CEOs from both companies stepped down.
4. Toyota Unintended Acceleration
Toyota's unintended acceleration scandal rocked the company's reputation for building very safe vehicles. Customers complained that the firm's models could suddenly surge forward, and the automaker initially believed that the problem was from floor mats pressing on the accelerator.
After an initial recall of 5.5 million vehicles to fix the floor mat issue, the company discovered a second possible cause because the pedal could also stick, causing the vehicle to accelerate. This forced repairs of millions of more models.
Toyota eventually paid a $1.2 billion fine to the United States Justice Department, and the automaker admitted that "it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety issues affecting its vehicles, each of which caused a type of unintended acceleration."
3. General Motors Ignition Switch Failure
In early 2014, General Motors announced a recall for the ignition switches on multiple models because they could suddenly shut off when jostled. If this happened, systems like the airbags, power steering, and power brakes were deactivated. The problem affected millions of vehicles, and GM's owner compensation fund identified 124 deaths from the faulty part.
GM eventually had to pay $900 million to settle the problem with the Department of Justice; $35 million to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and $1 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The automaker's victim compensation fund paid out $594.5 million, too.
2. Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Coverup
Most automotive scandals affect a single corporation, but Volkswagen's diesel emissions cheating harmed an entire segment. The company's coverup hurt the popularity of diesel-fueled powerplants both in the United States and Europe and forced regulators to take a much more serious look at diesel engine emissions.
The scandal initially broke in the United States when researchers in West Virginia discovered discrepancies between VW's diesel emissions on the road and in the standard lab test. They reported the results to the California Air Resources Board, and the agency investigated further. Eventually, the agency discovered a cheat device where the vehicle lowered its emissions during the standardized evaluation.
The fallout from the scandal forced Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn to step down and cost the company over $30 billion in the United States. German prosecutors have also been investigating the company's execs, including recently taking Audi CEO Rupert Stadler into custody over concerns of him possibly suppressing evidence.
1. Takata Airbag Recall
Takata's replacement of its exploding airbag inflators ranks as the largest recall in United States history, not just in automobiles but in all products in general. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the campaign affects "roughly 37 million vehicles equipped with 50 million defective Takata airbags," but even these huge figures don't tell the whole story. The danger was so severe that some vehicles required multiple repairs – first for a temporary replacement to lessen the risk and later for a permanent improvement.
Research showed that the propellant that caused the airbag to inflate changed its chemical structure over time because of moisture. The substance would then ignite too quickly and cause the inflator to burst, which would shoot metal shards at occupants.
By NHTSA's count, 15 people in the United States have been killed by the exploding airbags, and there have been at least 250 injuries.
The scandal caused Takata to file for bankruptcy.
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