5 of the biggest car recalls of all time (Slideshow)

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When an automobile is recalled, no one is happy. Recalls can cost car manufacturers millions -- if not billions -- of dollars. They also inconvenience drivers, requiring them to bring their vehicles into auto dealerships for repairs and potentially leaving them without a car for days, even weeks.

A car recall can be a public relations disaster for auto manufacturers, since autos with defective parts often cause crashes. Once a vehicle has been recalled, automakers must work to convince the public their products remain safe and reliable.

Here are five of the biggest U.S. auto recalls of all time.

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1.  Ford sends out safety warning labels to the owners of 21 million cars

In January 1981, nearly 23 million Ford cars and trucks with automatic transmissions were the subject of a recall. The action, which involved vehicles manufactured between 1970 and 1980, is the biggest recall in U.S. history, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety (CAS). Faulty transmissions failed to properly engage when in "park," and the defect sometimes caused vehicles to shift into reverse.

The recall brought plenty of negative publicity to Ford, but it did not result in a substantial financial penalty. In 1982 the CAS estimated that it then would have cost Ford about $250 million to make the repairs.

Rather than repairing these vehicles, Ford entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The company sent the car owners sets of dashboard labels, which warned of the potential hazard. Efforts by consumer groups to overturn this decision and require the defective parts to be repaired were unsuccessful.

According to the CAS, Ford transmission accidents up to that time led to at least 306 deaths.

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2. Toyota recalls defective floor mats and gas pedals in 11 million cars

Toyota's reputation as a high-quality manufacturer suffered when it was learned that gas pedals on several of its models could become stuck, causing unintended acceleration. After years of unexplained crashes, Toyota recalled about 11 million cars worldwide in 2009 and 2010, The New York Times reported. The automaker cited floor mats that could become tangled with accelerator pedals and defects in the pedals themselves. About 5.7 million of the recalled vehicles belonged to U.S. drivers, MarketWatch reported in February 2013.

In May 2010, the NHSTA reported that since 2000 it had received more than 6,200 complaints involving the sudden-acceleration problem in Toyotas. They included reports of 89 deaths.

Industry analysts estimated that recall costs exceeded $5 billion overall, making it the costliest recall ever. There were related lawsuits against the company. In December 2012, Toyota agreed to pay about $1.1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit stemming from complaints of unintended acceleration in its vehicles. The NHTSA also fined Toyota about $66 million for not notifying the agency of problems in a timely manner.

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3. Ford recalls nearly 15 million cars to repair speed-control systems  

Ford issued a recall of 7.9 million cars in April 1996 to address short circuiting with its speed-control systems, according to the CAS. The concern was that the malfunction could cause fires under the hood. Unfortunately, problems with the faulty devices led to six recalls, the last in October 2009. In February 2008, the NHTSA issued a consumer advisory urging owners whose vehicles hadn’t yet been fixed to have the switches disconnected immediately.

Nearly 15 million vehicles manufactured between 1991 and 2004 were affected by the recalls. The New York Times reported in April 2008 that the NHTSA received 1,472 complaints or allegations of engine compartment fires related to the switches before the investigation was closed in August 2006. It didn’t link the defect to any deaths, however.

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4. Flawed seat belts trigger recall of 8.4 million vehicles

In the mid-1990s, many major automakers used seat belts manufactured by Takata Corp. in Japan. After an investigation, the NHTSA concluded that buttons on the seat belts were prone to malfunctioning, leaving drivers and passengers trapped in their seats. In May 1995, several  automakers offered replacement mechanisms for 8.4 million vehicles. The cost was an estimated $1 billion. The vehicles included models made between 1986 and 1991 by Chrysler, GM, Honda, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and others. The NHTSA said it had received 539 consumer complaints about malfunctioning Takata seat belts, including reports of 47 injuries -- but no deaths, according to a report from The Washington Post.

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5. Bridgestone/Firestone recalls 6.5 million tires on Ford vehicles

In August 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires because they were coming apart,  primarily on Ford Explorers. According to news reports, at least 271 people were reported killed and hundreds more injured in accidents involving Firestone ATX, ATXII and Wilderness AT tires.

Both the tire maker and Ford ended up paying a huge price for the recall. Bridgestone/Firestone spent $440 million on recall-related costs while Ford said it spent $3 billion. In October 2005, Bridgestone/Firestone agreed to pay another $240 million to Ford to settle claims related to the recall and help pay some of Ford's costs.

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