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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Bumper Crop: GM’s New Lemons

General Motors is having serious quality control problems with its cars. The giant auto manufacturer’s recent lemon crop is so unsettling that the company’s chief executives have admitted their worries publicly. According to the Wall Street Journal, GM president James McDonald conceded that the X cars are plagued “with uneven doors, shabby paint jobs and other problems that do not match the quality stan­dards of foreign competitors.”

It is not just difficulties with what GM chairman Roger Smith called the “fit and finish.” Customers are having trouble with their power steering, tran­smissions and electrical systems. Consumer Reports has published a reader survey showing a much worse than average frequency of repair for the X models.

We can notice this reaction by the GM car-owner complaints that we receive. Four years ago, Chrysler car complaints were way out of proportion to its market share. Now it seems to be GM that is receiving more than a lion’s share of customer indignation.

In particular, GM cannot seem to match its Cadillac quality with its Cadillac price. A page-one article in Automotive News, ordinarily a meek industry trade journal, started with these words:

“General Motors may have a time bomb on its hands with its new Cadillac V-8-6-4. Of the numerous customers interviewed by Automotive News, most said the car can die on the road without warning. Others said the car slows down as if to stall and then jerks forward unexpectedly. Still others reported engine fires.”

The magazine reported that some dealers “are in effect buying back the cars equipped with the V-8-6-4 from very dissatisfied customers.”

These complaints do not come just from individual owners. Automtive News reports that Jack Schwartz of Gaines Service Leasing Corp. in New York pur­chased 2,700 of the V-8-6-4 cars for his stretch limousine business. Schwartz says he has had “nothing but headaches” with every one. “The dealer can’t fix it and neither can we,” he told the magazine. “I could give you a list of 20 people who own Cadillacs and never want to hear the name again,” New Jersey Cadillac owner Arthur Pallent told the reporter.

Because of the propensity to stall, Automotive News noted that “one Cadillac zone official said he does worry about a female employee who drives a V-8-6-4 and travels in isolated areas.”

Complaints about GM lemons that we receive are detailed and forthright. “Something is drastically wrong with the construction, design or engineering of the new V-8-6-4 Cadillacs,” sums up a Toledo, Ohio, buyer. From Wayne, N.J., a man writes, “The Cadillac division should hang its head in shame for perpetrating this hoax on people who were loyal to them. No wonder the Japanese are able to displace the Americans as reliable suppliers of quality vehicles.”

A taxicab operator in El Paso, Texas, purchased four Oldsmobile Cutlass Diesels. All four vehicles are out of service because of major engine problems and, the customer complains that Oldsmobile is refusing to treat this matter seriously.

GM dealers are caught in the middle. They do not build the car that GM pushes them to sell. Yet they receive the first brunt of their customers’ ire. An Allentown, Pa., woman was careful to make this distinction when she wrote: “The dealer has given me excellent service (on her 1980 Citation), but I am thoroughly discouraged with the Chevrolet Motor Company.”

Two years ago we tried to extend a cooperative hand to General Motors by sending the chairman copies of about 200 of their customer complaints that we received. We urged GM to give this sampling of unhappy customers a fair hearing and notified the complainants of our appeal. GM’s response was singularly uncooperative and unresponsive.

Perhaps this is why more ‘people are resorting to filing consumer class actions against General Motors or using the federal warranty law to achieve some measure of justice. Unless the chief executives of this company become more sensitive to the quality of the vehicles’ engineering, GM will continue to use its shareholders’ money to pay for bumper lemon crops. GM is very large, indeed, but by the same token it has a great deal to lose.