In recent years the automobile industry has seen quite a few product recalls. From major automakers like Toyota and General Motors to component makers like Takata, several corporations saw themselves recalling products in the millions and paying fines, again in the millions of dollars. While these conglomerates were rightly made to accept blame, explain the cause of defects and pay compensations, there is an incident from a few decades ago that was as massive in scope as these but did not end in a recall.
In the late Seventies, consumer advocacy group Center for Auto Safety brought a serious transmission problem with Ford vehicles to the NHTSA’s attention. It had been found that several Ford vehicles made from 1966 to 1980 had a defect with their automatic transmissions that caused the gear shifter to slip from ‘park’ into ‘reverse’ on its own. Many incidents were reported where an unsuspecting driver would put the gear in ‘park’ and the vehicle would unintentionally roll, resulting in injury or an accident. By 1980, the NHTSA had received 23,000 complaints about Ford transmissions, including reports of 6,000 accidents, 1,710 injuries, and 98 fatalities. It launched an investigation and determined a defect in Ford vehicles with automatic transmissions. This accounted for a whopping 23 million vehicles made by Ford since 1966. A potential recall and possible compensation to complainants would have doomed Ford.
However, despite ascertaining the problems and disregarding pressure from several quarters to order a Ford recall, the NHTSA was surprisingly soft in its response. It just asked Ford to simply send owners of the affected vehicles a warning label sticker. These stickers warned the owners to make sure the gear selector lever was engaged in “park”, the parking brake was fully engaged and the ignition shut off. In short, Ford was allowed to shift the responsibility for park-to-reverse crashes to drivers, and to avoid repairing or recalling these vehicles. Although it was extremely lucky to have been let off the hook for something this serious, this episode was one of the low points in the brand’s long history.