More than 1,300 General Motors cars have caught fire even after a recall repair that was supposed to prevent an engine fire.
GM has acknowledged that the repair did not work. The company issued a new recall for 1.4 million older cars, some for a second time, the Associated Press (AP) reports. The company advised owners to park the cars outside until the repairs are done, for fear that flames from a car fire could spread to nearby structures.
The post-recall fires raise questions about whether GM should have acted sooner, whether the government should have intervened, and whether the first repair should have been approved.
The auto industry, after numerous mishandled safety recalls, deaths, injuries, criminal investigations, class-action lawsuits, and billions of dollars in costs, has improved its detection and reporting of safety troubles, according to the AP. But cases like the GM engine fires demonstrate the auto industry’s tendency toward resistance and procrastination. Despite more aggressive action by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), problems still go undetected, according to the AP. “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 Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group. “To make matters worse, NHTSA missed the defect in its complaint database.”
Cars at risk for engine fires include the Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevy Lumina and Impala, Buick Regal and Oldsmobile Intrigue from the 1997 to 2004 model years. The fires are caused by oil seeping through valve cover gaskets designed to keep the oil inside the engine. The gaskets deteriorate over time, and hard braking can cause oil to drip onto the hot exhaust manifold on the 3.8-liter V6 engines, where it can ignite. In 2008 and 2009, GM recalled two versions of the V6 engine, in a total of 1.7 million cars. In some cars the gasket was replaced, but in most, only flammable plastic parts near the manifold were replaced, according to the AP.
A GM spokesman explained that company tests showed that a small fire caused by dripping oil would burn out on its own. “We were trying to remove anything that would allow the flame to spread,” he said. Jake Fisher, a former GM engineer who is now Consumer Reports‘ director of auto testing, says GM should have repaired the oil leak in all the affected cars. He was surprised GM would allow an open flame under the hood. “I can’t imagine a scenario where that would be acceptable,” Fisher says.
Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business professor, criticizes GM for seeking the cheapest, easiest repair. Valve cover gaskets are not expensive, but it takes about 48 minutes to replace the gasket. At a labor rate of about $100 per hour, fixing 1.4 million cars would cost GM roughly $112 million, according to the AP.
The Associated Press reviewed NHTSA’s complaint records for the 2001 Grand Prix and found 466 complaints of engine fires, including 33 for fires after recall repairs were made. Complaints of fires in already repaired cars started in June 2009. It’s not clear why NHTSA did not act sooner or whether GM could be fined for not reporting post-recall fires earlier. Automakers are required by law to report safety defects within five days of discovering them.