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Five big motoring scandals: 65 Years of Wheels

By Andy Enright, 21 Sep 2018 Features

Five big motoring scandals: 65 Years of Wheels

When there’s huge money at stake, sometimes corporate ethics go out the window

It’s official: Wheels is 65 years old. But this series isn’t about us. To celebrate our 65th, we thought we’d take a look at the decisions that have changed the automotive world over the last six and a half decades. Some were inspirations that altered it for the better, others were engineering dead ends, nefarious cover-ups and valiant flops. Scroll on to read more, then click here to explore all 65 cars, people, game-changers and failures that have influenced the car industry since 1953, in no particular order.

1. Dieselgate

Between 2009 and 2015, the Volkswagen Group built around 11 million vehicles that emitted as much as 40 times their published nitrogen oxides; compounds that damage lung tissue and inflame potentially fatal respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis. The vehicles were programmed to switch into a clean mode while undergoing laboratory emissions testing and then revert to ‘dirty’ in real-world conditions. In April 2017, a US federal judge ordered Volkswagen “to pay a US$2.8 billion criminal fine for rigging diesel-powered vehicles to cheat on government emissions tests.” Too little, too late? Between 2009 and 2015, Volkswagen sales increased by almost 60 percent and in 2017 it overtook Toyota to become the world’s biggest car maker. The damage to the company’s reputation over the longer term is harder to assess.

Read next: 15 people who made a difference: 65 Years of Wheels

2. The Ford/Firestone Explorer debacle

The Ford-Firestone rollover scandal of 2000 kicked off when the NHTSA asked both Ford and Firestone to investigate a high rate of blowouts that led to rollovers and up to 100 deaths. Ford blamed Firestone, and Firestone blamed Ford. Nearly 20 million tyres were recalled, the two companies underwent congressional hearings, and in a flurry of lawsuits, Firestone and Ford parted ways in 2002. Was it poor Ford design, flawed Firestone rubber or a bit of both? We may never know as neither company ever took full responsibility.

Read next: 10 iconic car designs: 65 Years of Wheels

3. Ford Pinto

In its simplest terms, a cost-benefit analysis states that if the cost is greater than the benefit, the project is not worth it – no matter what the benefit. These were the grisly mathematics behind Ford’s Pinto development. The car needed to come to market in the 1970s at not a cent over US$2000 and not an ounce over 2000 pounds and safety was not a priority. An $11-per-car fuel tank improvement would have prevented 180 deaths a year, but Ford’s internal memo titled ‘Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires’ valued each death at $200,000. Therefore modifications to make the fuel tank less susceptible to rupture in rear-end impacts, even at $11, were not deemed cost effective.

Read next: 10 cars that defined Australia: 65 Years of Wheels

4. A-Class on a roll

These days, there’s barely any car enthusiast who doesn’t know what an Elk Test is. Back in 1997, a Swedish magazine rolled the revolutionary A-Class during a lane-change test. Mercedes initially stonewalled, but eventually recalled all 130,000 cars sold, added ESC across the range and modified the suspension. After a flurry of bad press, the company emerged with its safety credentials boosted by doing the right thing, providing a case study in crisis management. The range-wide ESC adoption also set a precedent. By 2014, ESC was required on all new cars in the EU.

Read next: 10 landmark motoring innovations: 65 Years of Wheels

5. Takata

From 2000, Japanese airbag manufacture Takata inadvertently introduced a design fault to its airbags whereby inflators were degraded by moisture. When triggered, the airbags could shower occupants with potentially lethal metal shards. It’s alleged that Takata knew about the flaw in 2004 and Honda issued a recall in 2008, but Takata didn’t announce a large-scale recall until 2013. Now it’s estimated that around 30 million vehicles worldwide will require recalls. More than 20 people have been killed by the fault. Takata filed for bankruptcy in 2017.