DETROIT — Shortly after Elizabeth Berry parked her 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 said of the bright yellow 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 across the U.S. whose cars
caught fire even after getting the repair called for in the recall. GM acknowledged that 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 still haunts
the industry and car owners. It also shows that despite reforms that have made the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration more aggressive, problems still can go undetected.
“Over 1,000 fires is a huge number that should have generated a safety recall by GM before now,”
said Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit 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 V6 engines, where it could ignite.
In 2008 and 2009, GM issued separate recalls for two versions of the V6, 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 that GM would allow an open flame under the hood.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where that would be acceptable,” he said.