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Five of the worst scandals in motoring history
By Matthew Hansen • 29/09/2016
Thursday Five: motoring sagas that shook the world
I’ll come clean early; this article was inspired by this week’s political debate in the US. It’s something of a sin for anyone on a car website to pay attention to such things, so for that I apologize.
What paralyzed me about the debate was the way in which scandals seemed to be thrown around by both candidates on a minute-by-minute basis, one series of alleged crimes balanced out by another — then rinse and repeat.
It made me think of what life in sweet innocent Carland is like, because we too witness scandals aplenty; some big, some small, some accidental, some … less so.
And yet the place is largely a peaceful one. Rarely do you ever see one multi-million dollar brand slinging mud over the fence at another, especially in such a public realm. Social media accounts are shiny and clean, full of stock images of attractive people in convertibles and young people putting snowboards on roof racks, and completely vacant of people standing behind podiums attempting to interrupt each other as much as possible.
With that in mind, here are four of the worst scandals from the motoring industry that you may well have forgotten, and one scandal you most likely haven’t.
The Ford Pinto
By just the fourth word of this article’s headline, you knew that the Ford Pinto would be making an appearance.
But like most good clichés, the one that has seen the Pinto dragged through popular culture as a monument of how not to make a car is more than justified.
The discovery that in the short term would destroy the Pinto’s reputation and in the long term turn it into an infamous icon was the fact that early Pintos had a tendency to spontaneously combust in a rear-end collision.
That in itself is obviously a glaring issue, but what eventually dug Ford’s hole was evidence that the brand was aware of the issue early and, instead of acting fast, simply did nothing about it until they were caught. Ford reportedly studied the price it would cost to recall and fix the problem and compared it to the price of paying out victims, and the former won over the latter.
They eventually caved to pressure and fixed the issues, but by then their reputation was in tatters.
General Motors ignition switch recall
Pintogate should’ve become a new standard for American manufactures on what they absolutely positively should not do when it comes to finding critical issues with their cars. You would think that only the most reckless of marques would ever think about following similar footsteps further down the line.
Alas, General Motors didn’t get the memo.
In early 2014, GM recalled approximately 800,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s for bung power steering. This already sizeable number doubled a month later. By late June, that number had swelled to 29 million — more than six times New Zealand’s entire population and three times the value of the average house in Auckland.
By this point, GM should have been on their knees, clasping their hands together and begging for forgiveness by virtue of some good old fashioned corporate transparency. And surely that was something learned from the Pinto; do not hide.
But, they did. GM reported a self-quantified number of 13 deaths linked to the recall. That’s a pretty dismal number to begin with, but it was eventually revealed that the figure only related to situations in which a driver’s airbags hadn’t deployed upon a head-on impact.
It didn’t include many of the other deaths that had accrued over the period, with Reuters eventually connecting the faults to an absolutely staggering 153 deaths. Just a few more than a paltry 13. GM partially fessed up just over a year after the first recall to 87 deaths, but have offered compensation for 124.
While Toyota's spate of ‘runaway’ recalls through 2009 and 2010 weren't quite as comprehensive as that GM would find themselves having to undertake some four years later, the Japanese marque's recalls through the period were in some ways as much of a story.
For a start, the car issue was one that tapped into the fears of many drivers — ‘sudden unintended acceleration’. Even in its three-word scientific terminology, there's something about the idea of a car's accelerator pedal taking on a mind of its own that's deeply scary.
And secondly, this was Toyota we were talking about. Honest, reliable, dependable Toyota. The quiet kid in the corner of the class that pressed on with studies while everyone else passed notes, made paper planes, and bemoaned the state of modern schooling. For issues like these to spawn from a brand like Toyota was a huge deal for motorists.
A total of 37 died as a result of the runaway saga — a scandal ultimately caused by misfitting floor-mats that would entrap pedals, as well as a sticking accelerator pedal issue.
Toyota ended up paying a settlement fee of more than one billion dollars in early 2014 to avoid prosecution, and that was that.
Corvair, “unsafe at any speed”
The Chevrolet Corvair could have been an absolutely massive car for American motoring culture. Had things worked out a little differently, the sports car could well have been GM's poster child. Instead the rear-engined, rear-wheel drive sportscar was replaced by something called the Camaro, and the storied war between GM and Ford's Mustang began.
The Corvair's time was cut short in 1965, when the now rather well known political activist Ralph Nadar published the book Unsafe at Any Speed.
The book pointed the finger at various car manufacturers for neglecting safety elements like seat belts in order to keep costs as low as possible. GM responded ... by tapping Nadar's phones to try and scour some juicy secrets from him to take him down in court with. Smooth.
Nadar's book exposed that Corvairs were prone to dangerous levels of oversteer, supposedly thanks to factory tyre pressure values that were outside of tyre brands' tolerances. Nadar had more than 100 lawsuits based around Corvair crashes on his side, and subsequently sales of the handsome car fell through the floor and the model was killed off.
Ironically, it was later found that the Corvair was no less safe that most other American cars. Still, the book and the scandal had shone a light on automotive safety in a big way, with the Corvair functioning as society's sacrificial metal car-shaped lamb.