Ever since there have been cars (or anything else for that matter that has been series produced) there have been errors made by the manufacturers. It seems that almost once a week, we hear about about a manufacturer recalling a model because of some small error made in production. This affliction is not unique to the world's largest car companies, plenty of instances exist where some of the most expensive cars made in tiny numbers have been recalled as well. Recalls are a fact of production since no matter how much time you spend engineering and refining a complex machine like an automobile, there always exists the chance of mistake or a less than wonderful design feature.
The ubiquitousness of recalls is undeniable, but their history is somewhat more convoluted. Until the establishment of consumer safety agencies, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Association in 1970, recalls were largely the provenance of manufacturers. While today, product recalls are typically forced on the companies by safety agencies, recalls in the past were typically done by manufacturers to correct errors that were reducing sales. Because of the fly-by-night nature of recalls in automobiles, the history of recalls is somewhat poorly documented (unlike today when you can get it online). One prime example of a historical recall almost sunk what would become one of the most mass produced vehicles in history.
In mid-1908, Ford Motor Company brought out its new Model T. Priced at $850 (the early T's, up until the moving production line really kicked into gear in 1914 were not quite car of the masses yet), these early T's were simple and easy to drive. Reliable power from an L-Head inline four displacing 176.6 cubic inches was routed through a two-speed planetary gearbox. A number of innovations, such as use high-strength steel for added stiffness and lower weight, an engine and transmission oiling system that was powered by the engine and drew oil from the crankcase, and the first car in the US produced with a left hand drive steering wheel.
Unlike today, where vehicle controls are pretty much standardized (go on the right, clutch on the left, stop in the middle), no such congruence exists in 1908. Ford's early T's had two pedals (clutch on the left and brake on the right) and two levers (reverse gear engagement on the right, handbrake/neutral engagement on the left). While the driver's feet were relatively unhindered (mash the clutch for low gear, release it for high gear, brake pedal operated like they do today), his/her left hand was inordinately busy when it came to going into reverse. This was because the car's reverse gear was engaged by pushing the right side left forward and pulling the left lever back. Forward motion was engaged by doing the opposite. The close proximity of the levers meant that one would likely skin their knuckles in performing this procedure, or at the very least be doing a lot of unnecessary reaching just to backwards or forwards.
Ford recognized the ungainliness of this drive system quite early on and subsequently built only 800 two-pedal/two-lever T's. The remained 20+ million cars had three pedals (clutch, reverse, brake) and one lever (handbrake/neutral engagement). The change was obviously a positive one as it made the car safer (if you engaged reverse before putting the car in neutral the results could be pretty bad for you and the car) and easier to drive.
Ford's recall clearly demonstrates that there is nothing new to the phenomenon of manufacturer product recall. So next time you get a letter int he mail from the maker of your car telling you that you need to bring it in to fix the widget that caused some other cars to crash, consider yourself a member of a group that has existed since the cradle of the automotive age: the recall victim.
Pictured: An early 1908 Ford Model T that was among the first 800 cars built. The car currently resides in the Towe Auto Museum in Sacramento, CA.