DETROIT — Shortly after Elizabeth Berry parked her bright yellow 2003 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS on the street in front of her family’s home in May 2014, flames engulfed the engine, destroying the car and scorching her mailbox.
“I was hysterical. That was like my third baby,” she says of the car.
Compounding the shock was the fact that five years earlier, Berry had answered a recall notice from General Motors for a repair that was supposed to prevent engine fires.
Two weeks ago, Berry learned that she is one of 1,345 car owners in towns across the U.S. whose cars caught fire even after getting the repair called for in the recall. GM acknowledged the fix didn’t work and issued a new recall involving 1.4 million older cars, some for a second time.
GM advised drivers to park the cars outside until the repairs are done, for fear of flames spreading to nearby structures.
The post-recall fires raise questions about whether GM should have acted sooner, whether the government should have taken notice and stepped in, and whether the ineffective fix should have been approved in the first place.
After a series of mishandled recalls that involved deaths and injuries, criminal investigations, class-action lawsuits and costs running into the billions of dollars, the auto industry has improved its spotting and reporting of safety troubles. Over the past two years, automakers have recalled about 100 million cars and trucks in an effort to clean up lingering safety issues and catch new ones before they escalate to millions of vehicles. Of GM’s 41 recalls this year, the company says about half cover fewer than 10,000 cars or trucks.
But cases such as the GM fires, and the government’s recent punishment of Fiat Chrysler for numerous delayed recalls show that an old culture of resistance and procrastination can still haunt the industry and car owners. It also shows that despite reforms that have made the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration more aggressive, problems can still go undetected.
“Over 1,000 fires is a huge number that should have generated a safety recall by GM before now,” says Clarence Ditlow, head of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group. “To make matters worse, NHTSA missed the defect in its complaint database.”
Problems with the cars, including the Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevy Lumina and Impala, Buick Regal and Oldsmobile Intrigue from the 1997 to 2004 model years, surfaced as early as 2006. In one North Carolina case, flames spread from a Pontiac and damaged two houses. Overall, GM has reported 19 minor injuries and at least 17 structure fires.
The problem: oil seeping through valve cover gaskets designed to keep it inside the engine. The gaskets can deteriorate over time, and inertia from hard braking can cause oil to drip onto the hot exhaust manifold on the 3.8-liter V-6 engines, where it could ignite.
In 2008 and 2009, GM issued separate recalls for two versions of the V-6, covering 1.7 million cars. In some cars, the gasket was replaced, but in the majority, only flammable plastic parts near the manifold were replaced.
GM spokesman Alan Adler said two weeks ago that if any oil dripped and caught fire, it would cause a small “pilot flame,” that company tests showed would burn out on its own. “We were trying to remove anything that would allow the flame to spread,” he said.
But Jake Fisher, a former GM engineer who now is Consumer Reports’ director of auto testing, says the recall should have addressed the oil leak on all the cars. He was surprised GM would allow an open flame under the hood. “I can’t imagine a scenario where that would be acceptable,” he says.
Erik Gordon, a lawyer and University of Michigan business professor, says the decision not to fix the leak shows that GM’s culture was to find the cheapest, easiest repair. “This is a ‘we’ll get out the duct tape’ kind of approach,” he says. “We’re not going to replace the gaskets because that’s too expensive.”
Valve cover gaskets are relatively cheap, but the labor to do the repairs is where the cost lies. It takes about 48 minutes to replace the gasket and do the other recall repairs, according to documents. At a labor rate of around $100 per hour, fixing 1.4 million cars would cost GM roughly $112 million.
It’s unclear why NHTSA didn’t act sooner or whether GM could be fined for not reporting the post-recall fires faster. NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge wouldn’t comment on either issue. Automakers are required by law to report safety defects within five days of discovery.
A review by The Associated Press of NHTSA’s complaint data on just one model, the 2001 Grand Prix, shows 466 complaints of engine fires, including 33 concerning fires after recall repairs were made. Complaints of fires on recall-repaired cars started in June 2009, more than six years ago.
Elizabeth Berry says that after her Monte Carlo burned last year, she called GM and a representative told her that recall repairs hadn’t fixed the problem. She says GM offered her $2,000 and asked her not to have the car towed or to contact insurance. But her insurance company offered her four times more, so she took that offer and bought a Mazda6.
The fires are still occurring. On Sept. 9, freshman Joe Jarmoluk’s white 2004 Grand Prix caught fire after he left it in a parking lot at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Mich. By the time the fire was out, the car was totaled. It damaged four nearby vehicles, melting tires, a bumper and a tail light.
Other drivers, Jarmoluk says, were mad at him, with one complaining he’d been left stranded by the fire. Jarmoluk had to buy a new car, and GM has turned down his claim for compensation.