By on March 31, 2012

For decades, I’ve been seeing Ford-family vehicles with ugly, pointless warning labels stuck to their instrument panels: Unexpected and possibly sudden vehicle movement may occur if these precautions are not taken. I’d always assumed that these were ex-rental cars, but after I mentioned the warning stickers in this week’s ’75 Ford Maverick Junkyard Find post, several readers pointed out that the stickers were the result of Malaise Era litigation. Of course!
It turns out that many Ford automatic transmissions of the 1966-1980 period developed a tendency to slip from Park to Reverse, on their own, leading to lots of unpleasantness (if we are to believe Ralph Nader’s Center For Auto Safety, this problem caused 6,000 accidents, 1,710 injuries, and 98 fatalities). Since we’re talking about something like 23 million vehicles here, Ford resisted launching the biggest recall in automotive-industry history; the DOT agreed in 1980 to have Ford send out warning labels to the 23 million affected owners. Some of them used the stickers, most didn’t, and we still see them from time to time in junked Fords, Lincolns, and Mercurys. So, another bit of junkyard-learned Malaise Era automotive history, a nice chaser to the story of the FLOOR TEMP warning light.

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50 Comments on “Automotive Lawsuit History Unearthed, Junkyard Style: The Ford Park-To-Reverse Warning Label...”


  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    I’ve seen quite a few 1990′s era Taurus and Sables with an updated version of these stickers in them. And no, they were not from rental fleets. I can say that I experienced a car slipping out of gear once. In 1996 I was working for a large L-M dealer, and we had a 1996 Sable rental turned in and I was going to park it at the other end of the lot. I saw some people looking at a new car, and I stopped to see if they needed assistance. I parked the Sable but left the motor running. A few seconds after getting out of the car, I heard a click and turned around to see the Sable rolling backwards rather quickly towards a row of new Town Cars! Thankfully I was able to leap in and hit the brake with my hand just in time! So I guess there was still a bit of a problem going on even then…

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      I still have a 92 Sable as a third car, bought new by my mother and it never came with that label. I was surprised that the sticker was a surprise to many; I was just a boy at the time but I remember this being a news worthy story. It was in the press for quite some time. Very much like the Toyota floor mat issue is (was)today.

      • 0 avatar
        Japanese Buick

        Not like the Toyota floor mat issue at all. This was a verified design flaw. The detent between park and reverse was less effective than the other detente. I had a 77 Econoline with this issue. Never had an incident because I was careful but it was easy to show how easily it could slip from P to R if you weren’t careful.

  • avatar
    ppxhbqt

    Both my maternal grandmother’s 1969 Galaxie 500 and my paternal grandmother’s 1979 Cougar XR-7 jumped out of park and into reverse. Fortunately, in both cases it was directly after a cold-start stall, so neither went anywhere. The Galaxie had a neutral safety switch for the starter. The Cougar seemed to have an interlock to prevent turning the key unless in P or N as best I remember. I repeatedly tried with both cars to get the starter to turn on with the shifter at least not quite fully in Park with no success. So I’d say there was something to this.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      I had the same problem with my ’68 Mercury. You really had to push the selector firmly into park, or it didn’t start again after you turned off the ignition. The sudden movement came from people who didn’t use the parking brake, which a lot of people in that era thought was optional/too much bother. The weird thing is that it sounds like a linkage issue that could have been fixed cheaply in ’66 or ’67 when it first came up. Was Ford really that lazy – for fifteen model years? Or did they think fixing it would admit liability?

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    As I pointed out in the Maverick piece piece, Ford got off lucky a second time when DOT allowed them to use up the rest of their unprinted sticker stock as the way out of the Bronco II roll-over fiasco. Whatever Ford OGC person who came up with the sticker solution should have received a triple pension!

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    My Dad bought an ex Civil Service fleet ’78 Ford Fairmont and it didn’t have that sticker, nor did it have the shifter issue where it slipped out of park.

    He bought it in 1982, gave it to me in ’87, I sold it in 1992 when I bought my first Honda, an early 80′s Civic hatch with the 5spd manual.

    However, it WAS a slug of a car tho.

  • avatar
    udham

    As I understand it, this was not just a litigation issue, this was a real design flaw at Ford that did not get fully fixed till the mid 1980s.

    The full explanation would need a board and 20 minutes of time, but it was a pretty stupid design.

  • avatar
    PeteRR

    On 3 separate occasions, I’ve seen F-150s take off into reverse and not stop until they hit something nice and solid.

  • avatar
    DIYer

    My dad had a second job delivering 450 Detroit Free Press newspapers, and he said a delivery woman who drove a Ford pickup with newspapers in the bed was killed when it started to rain. In the early morning hours, she pulled over with the motor running, went to put a tarp over the papers, and the truck went into reverse. This happened sometime in the early ’80s.

    A guy who worked at as a manager at the Sharonville plant that made the C-4 transmission wrote a book “A Savage Factory”, and started a website with the same name:

    “http://asavagefactory.wordpress.com/2009/05/07/when-ford-got-bailed-out-by-the-government/”

    The sticker got Ford off the hook, in lieu of a recall to actually fix the defect.

  • avatar
    K5ING

    As I understand it, Ford was aware of the problem when it happened, not afterwards. It could have been fixed for less than $1 per car (around 75 cents IIRC) on the assembly line, but the bean counters said it would be cheaper to pay off the litigants and victims than to actually prevent the problem.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      I don’t know about on the assembly line; it was a design issue that would have required a change to a pot-metal casting in the steering column.

      We had a 1971 LTD in the family for 30 years, as well as a 1969 F100 for about 25 years. The F100 definitely had the tendency, while our LTD never had any issues, but it did come back from the dealership in the early 80s with that sticker affixed to the left end of the dash (where it was not visible to the driver at all, one had to notice it while the driver’s door was open).

  • avatar
    Searcher

    Back In High School one of the guys had a Maverick with a 302 and a 4 barrel that he’d put on. I was walking out towards my car and he was under the Maverick’s hood with the engine running for some reason. We must’ve chatted a bit as I remember being over by the LF fender which would’ve been the opposite side of the school. Anyway he leans over and wings the throttle a couple of times and as it’s coming down off the second wing there’s a bang, the whole car shivers, accompanied by a tire chirp as the car leaves the curbside parking at about a 45 degree angle and a pretty good clip. Charles runs after the car and literally dives headfirst into the drivers window and slams the car into Park, stopping it abruptly. He was still complaining about his right side a week later. I took the lesson and make sure I hear an old Fords trans click (it’s pretty obvious when you know what it is) when placed in park rather than merely relying on the shifter position. Even then I don’t entirely trust them.

    • 0 avatar
      Moparman426W

      It didn’t matter if the car was fully in park, on many the detent plate was rounded off and shutting the door would jar the shifter and it would go into reverse.

      • 0 avatar
        Searcher

        The click I’m talking about is the parking pawl inside the trans, not the shifter detent plate.

      • 0 avatar
        redmondjp

        Yes, but it still wouldn’t necessarily save you if the park pawl fully engaged in the transmission, as the design of the shifter casting on the column would cause the linkage to actually shift the transmission into reverse. On level ground where there is no force on the park pawl from the vehicle wanting to roll, this could happen quite easily.

  • avatar
    millmech

    I recall looking at wood stoves in Sears in the 80s; cast into the top was the warning: “CAUTION DURING USE THIS SURFACE IS HOT”.

  • avatar
    Justice_Gustine

    My first reality check when it came to class action suits – no check for me, just a silver sticker to affix to my 1977 C6 equipped Ranchero.

    So gullible back then.

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    For some reason, I still have the unused sticker, attached to the explanatory documents it was mailed with, for a ’70 Maverick I have not owned since about 1983. Actually, I know in part why I still have it. When I found it in a bunch of papers several years ago, I tried to sell it on eBay. Nobody wanted it, even for a buck.

    • 0 avatar

      MadHungarian,

      The Henry Ford Museum might be be interested. They just opened their new car exhibit, Driving America, and that’s exactly the kind of ephemera they have in the display cases that accompany the cars in the display’s timeline section.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        I’m not sure folks in Dearborn would be keen to be reminded of such things … I’m sure they would rather get old AAA Trip-Tics of Route-66…

    • 0 avatar
      CA Guy

      I checked my car files and I also have that mailing, dated May, 1981 from Owner Relations, Ford Parts and Service Division, for a 1972 Maverick that I no longer owned at that time. It has the unused sticker attached and includes the postcard with vehicle ID number you were supposed to return if you no longer owned the vehicle, something I clearly failed to do. A museum piece indeed!

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Before exiting, I always let off the brake and and let it roll until the trans stops it. That way I know Park is fully engaged and I’m done there. I grew up driving Fords from this era so it’s just how I learned. Of course I never use the parking brake in an automatic, it’s unnecessary and a bad habit.

    • 0 avatar
      potatobreath

      Is the parking pawl on its own strong enough to keep the car stopped through the vehicle’s lifetime though?

    • 0 avatar
      ciddyguy

      Denver Mike,

      Not on hills though. You had BETTER set the parking brake or the parking sprag might break and the car roll back onto the car behind it.

      I always use my parking brake, even with the automatic, it’s a habit I got into as I live where I have to occasionally park on a hill.

      I had a case once where my old Honda Civic rolled, even though I had it in reverse (manual tranny) and the parking brake didn’t hold well and the car began to roll some on a slopped driveway.

      Also, when on a hill, if you have to really pull the auto lever out of park to release the sprag, that’s telling you, you are putting MUCH TOO MUCH pressure on that sprag.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      On a steep hill, it’s a given, but a park pawl will hold several times a cars weight. In 20 years of dragging 1000s of cars against their will across parking lots and on to flatbeds, I’ve yet to break one. Likely a motor mount would give up first. When you hear/feel a car ‘chunk’ out of Park from the tension of parking on a steep bill, that’s the entire drivetrain kicking back into place.

      I should mention, you must always set the parking when jacking a car to change a tire even if it’s the front wheel on a RWD.

    • 0 avatar
      Marko

      What’s so bad about using the parking brake with an automatic? On flat surfaces, it might not be necessary, but on hills, it definitely is. Even if the parking pawl doesn’t break, you could still get stuck in park (this is common on Mercedes and Chrysler products).

      • 0 avatar
        Moparman426W

        I own a chrysler from the 60′s, 3 from the 70′s, 2 from the 80′s, and 4 from the 2000′s. Never had one get stuck in park, not even with my boat on a steep ramp or one of my work trailers hooked to one of my trucks while parked on a hill.

      • 0 avatar
        Marko

        Chrysler/Mercedes products equipped with the 5G-Tronic, generally.

      • 0 avatar
        Geekcarlover

        Had an Aries K and with my Caravan, both could be a bear if parked pointed uphill. A few times I was convinced I was about to snap off the gear selector.
        Now I set the break before shifting into park, and leave a note on the steering wheel.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      It’s bad for the brake pads when you drive off while it’s still set and you will (or someone else will).

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        I think it is a worse habit to drive off with a big red light illuminated on the dashboard than it is to set the parking brake. That it is called a parking brake is an indication as to its intended function.

      • 0 avatar
        potatobreath

        Often the dashboard light will flash at you, and you’ll catch it soon after you take off because progress will be incredibly slow, depending on the power of the engine. A Nissan Versa will not drive off with the parking brake fully engaged. I always set the parking brake, and it’s part of the driver license training here.

        If the vehicle has rear brake discs, then you only put wear on the parking brake shoe if the car moves. For rear drum cars, the parking brake is the rear brake shoe. Unless you have a Teutonic car with electronic parking brake that engages the calipers (unplug the battery before servicing the brakes!), but I bet the dash would start freaking out at you the moment you shift into Drive.

        Some cars also auto adjust the parking brake mechanism by setting the parking brake on the first few clicks and driving at city speeds for a few miles.

    • 0 avatar
      Searcher

      IMO, when dealing with inclines it’s better to set the parking brake to where it holds the vehicle so the pawl has no more load than it does on level ground. Having the parking pawl take the load puts a lot of strain on the shifter and its associated linkage, especially the cable types, when you take them out of park.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      Of course I never use the parking brake in an automatic, it’s unnecessary and a bad habit.

      Bad habit… why? Seriously, I can’t even think of an urban legend behind that one. Whatcha gonna do, wear out the e-brake by using it?

      (Indeed, I’ve heard far more* tales of them getting stuck on when used because “you don’t need to use it so I never do”… until someone else does.

      * More than one, versus zero.)

      Unnecessary?

      Well, if you never park on a hill and you know there’s no way your transmission could ever suffer a mechanical failure involving the parking pawl, sure.

      Here in the real world, though, the parking brake is for when you are parking.

  • avatar
    roger628

    My parents had a ’72 4dr Comet LDO with a 302 that had a problem with the fast idle circuit. SOP on cold Canadian prairie winter mornings was to let the car warm up and go back inside for another coffee-sometimes we’d come out and the engine was just roaring-speed far above what it should have been- It never ever jumped out of park, but what hilarious family fun might have ensued if ever did.

  • avatar
    Marko

    I remember Chrysler had a similar fiasco in the late 1990s. Parents would leave kids unattended in Jeeps and minivans, which did not have brake-shift interlocks, and the kids would inevitably horse around and knock the shifter out of park.

  • avatar
    jimmyy

    My nearly new Toyota Highlander and nearly new Honda Pilot both have disturbing stickers on the visor showing the vehicle tipping over. I try not to look at those.

  • avatar
    skor

    We had a 77 T-Bird in our family that originally exhibited this problem. My father took it back to the dealer, and an adjustment was made that took the car to the other extreme. After the adjustment was made, you needed the arm strength of Magilla Gorilla to get the car out of park.

  • avatar
    joeydimes

    Back in high school a friend inherited his grandmother’s baby blue 1969 Thunderbird. He was following me one night and rear-ended me – just a tap but we pulled into a corner gas station to look. He hopped out of the T-bird with the engine running and as he was closing the door, it slipped into reverse and started doing a reverse U-turn out into the street.

    He hung on to the door and was screaming STOP!! over and over until he finally had to let go. The car did a full circle before wedging itself between a light pole and a standpipe while we watched in horror.

    Scraped up both sides of the car something awful. His father was not pleased. The repair bill on that was much higher than the $250 to repair the rear bumper on my dad’s station wagon.


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