You're probably familiar with today's scandals over diesel emissions and exploding airbags, or older ones like Ford’s fire-prone Pinto or Toyota’s unintended acceleration—but have you ever heard of these?
Pontiac's Fiery Fiero
GM's Engine Mounts
John DeLorean's Cocaine Sting
GM Stalks Ralph Nader
Honda's American Scandal
GM had already been through a class-action suit over the British-built Vauxhall Firenza it first imported to Canada in 1971 and which had a tendency to catch fire. A decade later, it was back to the barbecue with the Pontiac Fiero, sold on both sides of the border. The two-seater, mid-engine, plastic-bodied Fiero debuted for 1984. Its four-cylinder engine had several problems, including wiring routed over the manifold, a tiny oil reservoir that could starve the engine, and faulty connecting rods. Some 260 of them caught fire. The V6 version was fine, but GM recalled every four-cylinder model, and discontinued the Fiero entirely after 1988.
In 1977, Nader’s Center for Auto Safety informed the NHTSA about Ford transmissions that slipped from Park to Reverse on their own. The NHTSA only issued a warning for drivers not to leave their vehicles running unattended. But as complaints increased, along with reports of 98 fatalities, NHTSA investigated in 1980 and found a high failure rate in 1966 through 1980 vehicles. A magazine writer uncovered evidence the automaker knew and had rejected a redesign due to cost, but Ford said the problem was drivers not firmly shifting into Park. NHTSA held hearings but ultimately declined a recall. Instead, 23 million dash stickers were mailed out, warning drivers to be sure the transmission was in Park and to set the parking brake.
Takata’s in the news for its airbags right now, but in 1995, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ordered a recall for 8.4 million vehicles with Takata seatbelts. The plastic release buttons could become brittle, preventing the belts from locking in place. The recall covered Japanese-made vehicles from 1986 to 1991, and included Honda, Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, and some models built for U.S. automakers. Some 60 injuries—but no deaths—were attributed to the seatbelts releasing in crashes.
In 1971, GM recalled 6.7 million V8-powered cars from 1965 to 1970 for engine mounts that could break. When they did, the engine would lurch upward, pulling the throttle cable and accelerating the vehicle. It could also affect the brakes and steering. GM resisted the recall, while company president Ed Cole said it was no worse than a flat tire, and drivers who couldn’t control a car with broken mounts “shouldn’t be driving.” NHTSA mandated a recall, but rather than a $50-per-car mount replacement, it accepted a $1 fix of an anchoring cable that kept the engine steady if a mount broke.
Famous for its role in Back to the Future, the stainless-steel DeLorean was the brainchild of John DeLorean, responsible for the Pontiac GTO in his General Motors days. Produced in Ireland, the DeLorean was expensive to build and buy. Money was tight, deliveries were delayed, and a stock issue that might have saved it fell through. In October 1982, DeLorean was arrested and charged with conspiracy to obtain and distribute $24 million in cocaine, allegedly to finance the company with the profits. But the “dealers” were actually FBI agents, and DeLorean’s lawyers argued entrapment. A jury agreed and acquitted him, but the stainless-steel DeLorean’s days were over.
In 1965, lawyer and activist Ralph Nader published Unsafe At Any Speed. The book attacked the auto industry overall, but spent a lot of time on GM and its compact Corvair, which Nader said was prone to rollovers. Prior to testifying at a Senate hearing on traffic safety, Nader discovered GM had hired private investigators to find any scandal that could discredit him, including paying prostitutes to try to entrap him. Nader successfully sued GM for $425,000, which he used to fund the Center for Auto Safety.
In 1995, John Billmyer and Dennis Josleyn, two former American Honda execs, went to prison on charges related to bribery. It began in 1989 when a Honda dealer in New Hampshire sued the company for unfair treatment, and the FBI got involved. It discovered that Billmyer, a national sales manager, demanded kickbacks in return for profitable franchises and car allocations. Dealers had to pay in cash, jewellery, trips, and even BMWs, which Billmyer preferred to Hondas. Overall, some $15 million changed hands, and the FBI said 22 execs and dealers were involved. Billmyer’s attorney argued that Honda’s top management, including Japan, knew about the scheme but let it pass. Other dealers sued based on that, and in 1998, Honda paid out $330 million to them in damages.