Skip to content

General Motors pouted with denials this spring when I asserted in an open let­ter to GM Chairman Roger Smith that his company was producing a bumper lemon crop because of serious quality control problems. I specifically mentioned troubles that motorists were having with $20,000 to $25,000 Cadillac’s as indicative of a defect process plaguing other GM lines such as the X cars.

But while the auto company was putting on a reassuring public front, we now know that inside the private executive suites, GM officials were fretting over a confidential report by their National Dealer Council for Cadillac that sharply denounced the poor shape of Cadillac engineering.

The dealers complained that they were spending too much time and money trying to correct or have the company correct these deficiencies. Their report listed soft brakes, “unbelievably poor” reliability in the electronic fuel injection system, poor paint quality and arm rests that broke off. Other areas cited by the dealers to show “continued deteriorating Cadillac quality” included the transmission, the astro-roof installation, cracking steering wheel and horn covers, inferior paint quality and numerous poor fits.

The Cadillac dealers council wrote that -the United Auto Workers could not be blamed for this shoddiness. “It is the feeling of this council that we can no longer fool the American public.” Those words from GM’s own dealers!

The dealers were right and GM long knew it. In a November, 1980 dealer service information bulletin, not printed for public circulation, General Motors conceded complaints of power surges, uneven engine firing, and lag time in vehicle response with Cadillac’s V-8-6-4 engine. Consumer groups are receiving many complaints about the unpredictable behavior of the V-8-6-4 engine from stalling to jerking forward after slowing unexpectedly. Though very late, this summer GM announced an extended war­ranty of five years or 50,000 miles for V-8­6-4 owners.

An Exxon official, W.C. Massey, sent GM a letter listing his woes with a 1980 Coupe De Ville that was all too typical of Cadillac owner outrage. The car, purchased in July, 1980, was scarcely out of the showroom when it came back to the shop for two weeks with transmission problems. Massey incurred the expense of a rental car. Two months later, he said, the car “broke down, at midnight, strand­ing my mother and son near Fredericks­burg, VA.” Expenses included motel room, a towing charge, travel cost and in­convenience and another rental car bill for two weeks. The problem this time: a stripped oil-pump gear.

In April 1981, his car broke down in Connecticut, stranding his wife. Another two weeks in the shop, plus rental car bills. The problem, he said, was a stripped flywheel.

In June 1981, his wife and son were again stranded, in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., due to engine malfunction. Hundreds of dollars more in expenses. Massey’s faith in GM was still intact, however. He traded the lemon in for a 1981 Sedan De Ville. Twenty days later, “the car stranded me in downtown Manhattan overheating every 10 blocks…my confidence is betrayed and shattered,” he told GM’s Cadillac customer relations director, K.R. Wolf.

“Mr. Wolf,” added Massey, “I realize full well that I am but a ‘drop’ in the sea of auto buyers, but I wonder how many ‘drops’ are suffering from such a dilemma as I.”

Massey put his finger on another dilemma with his plaintive remark of wonder. There are many such “drops,” as he put it, but they have no way of promptly learning about one another so that they can confront General Motors as a negotiating group to get their cars fixed or bought back.

It is time for such organized bargaining, and elite lemon-owners of Cadillac’s are a good place to start. If GM learns to become reasonable with $20,000 customers, less-expensive-car owners may apply these lessons later.

The non-profit Center for Auto Safety (Dupont Circle Building, Suite 1223, and Washington, D.C. 20036) is receiving Cadillac lemon-owner complaints. Other car owners having common engineering problems also are encouraged to write to the center—a consumer group whose reports have led to the recall of millions of defective cars.