The 10 Biggest Scandals in Automotive History

All of these scandals eventually backfired

Updated November 13, 2017

The VW diesel software scandal that’s unfolding is just one on many that have rocked the auto industry over the years. Here’s our Top 10 automotive scandals:

GM’s Smear Campaign Against the Chrysler Airflow


Though it sold poorly at the time, the advanced Chrysler Airflow gave a technology halo to Chrysler that GM had long coveted. The Airflow styling was based on tests that showed current cars were more aerodynamic in reverse, further the design included a unibody safety cage, safety glass, and other features advanced for the time.

Seeking to recover its position of technical leadership placed ads in the most popular magazine in the country at the time,  the Saturday Evening Post,  claiming that the radical Chrysler was plagiarized from a top-secret GM design (of which GM never produced any evidence) and even worse, that the Airflow was dangerous to drive..

Chrysler conducted and filmed a series of tests, one of the  Airflow’s suspension (by shooting out a tire at high speed), its use of safety glass (by having a pitcher throw a fastball at it without shattering), rolling it over (and driving away), and finally, driving it off a 110-foot cliff, then driving it away with out so much as a shattered window, then distributing the film as a newsreel to motion picture theaters across the country.

In the end it didn’t matter one way or another. Chrysler had gone too far with the Airflow and public didn’t accept the car. And for its part, there were no repercussions at GM.

Preston Tucker Fraud Allegations


Named for the year in which it was introduced, the Tucker 48 captured the public’s imagination thanks to its  streamlined styling, advanced technology, and breakthrough safety features in those early post WWII years.  The company’s charismatic founder, Preston Tucker. Tucker traveled across the country in his futuristic car, selling stock, dealership franchises, taking orders for parts, and accepting down payments on cars to raise money for secure a factory and procure tooling to begin production. But it wasn’t enough.

To acquire much needed capital, Tucker began selling options and accessories to customers whose cars hadn’t been built yet, and as production was continually delayed, the Feds stepped in. In 1950, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission indicted Tucker and his board of directors for fraud, and shut the company down.

The Tucker factory was closed after just 51 cars were built, and the company’s high profile made the indictments and seizure of company assets made news across the country.

Chevrolet Engine Mount Recall


In 1969, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) received a report that engine mounts used on 1965 to 1969 full-size Chevys could collapse, engine torque causing the motor to rise up against the hood, pinching the throttle cable which could cause  unintended acceleration. . When NHTSA took the issue to General Motors, the corporation replied that it had already received “172 reports of failed motor mounts, with 63 accidents and 18 injuries.” Astonishingly, Instead of taking action, both GM and the NHTSA kept quiet for nearly three years before publicly acknowledging the issue. However, the media began to take notice, and citing the mounting “publicity which has been given the issue” — not the legitimate safety concerns, GM announced on December 5, 1971, that it would recall 6.5 million vehicles and replace the motor mounts in question.

Ford Pinto Recall


Introduced for 1971, the Pinto was designed to take on the rising tide of imports that had come to dominate the entry-level market. For a time, the car was a major success, selling 328,275 cars in its first year on sale. But the Pinto had a fatal flaw, and Ford knew about it all along.

In a rear-end collision, the fuel tank could be pushed forward against an unprotected bolt, rupturing the tank and the fuel filler neck could be pulled free of the tank, in both cases spilling fuel.  A 1977 report in Mother Jones magazine revealed that Ford had known about the defect before the car went to production, but determined it would be too expensive to modify — the cost to safely upgrade the fuel system would’ve added $11 to the cost of each car, and a shield to protect the tank from rupturing against the differential bolt would have cost $1.

By 1978, NHTSA recalled 1.5 million Pintos (and the identical Mercury Bobcat), and made the modifications to the fuel system. While Ford ended up paying hundreds of millions of dollars in civil suits, which had a major impact on the company’s financial stability well into the 1980s. And even though the perception was that hundreds died in Pinto fires, NHTSA reports only 27 deaths.

Audi Unintended Acceleration


In the US today Audi is mentioned in the same breath as BMW and Mercedes. However in 1986-1987  undeserved bad publicity nearly knocked it out of the American market for good. Introduced in 1982, the Audi 5000 was the equivalent to what the A6 is today, its bread-and-butter sedan, and it was critical in establishing Audi as a premium luxury brand in America. However, there were few if any considerations made to modify the car from its use by German drivers to match closer how Americans drive.

All was going as planned until Sunday night, November 23, 1986, when CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment on the 5000,  reporting that the Audis would suddenly accelerate. To prove its point, 60 Minutes ran footage of an unoccupied 5000 jolting forward under its own power. What viewers didn’t see is that the car had been modified to replicate the experience vehicle owners had reported.

There was no unintended acceleration issue with the Audi 5000. However the company didn’t help its case by teutonically insisting that the issue was driver error, and running ads with quizzes about its cars that said “If you can pass this test… you’re ready for an Audi.”

Independent testing conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Japan all agreed with Audi. It was driver error, and that drivers confused the the Audi’s narrowly spaced gas and brake pedals (as is common in Germany), leading the drivers to believe that their brakes failed when they were actually flooring the car. After several years, Audi had been vindicated, but the damage was done. After selling more than 75,000 cars in the U.S. in 1985, sales slowed to 12,000 cars in 1991. It would take Audi nearly 20 years to return to its pre-1986 US sales numbers.

 Ford Explorer and Firestone Tires


The Ford Explorer was introduced to replace the dangerously rollover-prone Bronco II in 1990, and it went on to became one of the one of the best-selling vehicles of the decade. For tires, Ford partnered with Firestone, which had been its preferred tire supplier for nearly 100 years.

The engineers developing the Explorer were told that a key improvement that must be made over the Bronco II was its tendency to roll-over in high-speed turns. Unfortunately the engineers were not able to improve upon that characteristic, not surprising since the Explorer was built on a lengthened Bronco II chassis.  Ford engineers found the only way to reduce roll-overs without re-engineering the Explorer was to drastically lower the tire pressure to 26 PSI (a pressure so low it would set off the Tire Pressure warning light on a modern car’s dashboard). As tire lose pressure over tire, many Explorers could have been driven on dangerously underinflated tires, tires that could fail catastrophically.

Faced with the responsibility of up to 100 deaths worldwide,  Firestone company took responsibility and initially recalled 6.5 million tires, blaming heat, low tire pressure, and the Explorer’s weight and handling characteristics for the accidents. Ford followed suit a few months later, recalling an additional 13 million tires.

Toyota Unintended Acceleration


Unlike the Audi unintended situation charges, in 2012 Toyota agreed to pay the Feds $1.2 billion to avoid prosecution, the largest criminal penalty ever imposed on a car company. Like Audi, Toyota first claimed it was driver error. Then it suggested that floor mats were somehow impeding the return of the gas pedal, all the while the company was concealing documents that showed  the accelerator pedal assembly was defective.

Toyota  first came under fire in 2009, when authorities released an audio recording of a 911 call from CHP Officer Mark Saylor’s as his Lexus began to accelerate on its own. The car reached speeds of 125 miles per hour before it crashed, killing Saylor and three other occupants. Three years later, Toyota admitted that it misled the public, and recalled 9.3 million vehicles worldwide.

Takata Airbags


The Takata airbag recall, which involved 10 of the world’s biggest automakers and at least 17 million cars sold around the world, is undoubtedly the recall action with the largest scope.  Between 2000 and 2008, Japanese automotive supplier Takata manufactured airbags that when affected by moisture could deploy with excessive force. If the airbag explodes with sufficient force,it can shatter the metal housing and shower the interior of the vehicle with metal shrapnel.

A report in the New York Times alleged that both Takata and Honda knew about the potentially airbag problem as early as 2004 but failed to report their findings to the NHTSA. The U.S. government fined Honda $70 million, and Takata $14,000 for each day of not cooperating with the federal investigators. While all 10 automakers have been working to resolve the issue, it’s estimated that as many as 30 million cars globally could carry the lethal airbags.

Chevy Cobalt Ignition Recall


The Chevy Cobalt may well live on in infamy due to its faulty ignition switch that could cause the car to turn off the engine at speed, which would then deactivate safety systems like airbags and anti-lock brakes, and lead to potentially fatal accidents.

GM knew about the defective ignition switch as early as 2004 but determined that it would be too costly to fix. When it did decide to address the issue in 2006, GM went so far as to replace the defective part with an updated one with the same part number, effectively covering up the problem. After nine years and 13 deaths, GM finally was forced into recalling 2.6 million effected Cobalt and the nearly identical Pontiac G5 models.

Volkwagen Diesel Engine Software Scandal


The Volkswagen software scandal one is just starting and there are new facts emerging each day. How many people were involved, were there other companies involved, and just exactly how widespread this type of cheat software is in the automobile industry remains to be seen. Our prediction is that when all is said and done it will be larger than any of the other scandals listed above.


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Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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