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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Nobody Sweats the Details Like

Nobody sweats the details like GM customers.

That’s the complaint that comes to us day after day by Americans hailing from all backgrounds and trades. A short while ago we printed a sample of over 100 of these letters in a collection entitled “The General Motors Lemon Grove.” Read together, once can see they comprise an important civic literature that the public rarely has an opportunity to read unexpurgated. It is time to give a window to these and many other aggrieved consumers.
A West Virginia man writes to GM chairman, Roger Smith, relating his harrowing experience with a 1981 GMC truck possessed of a habit of taking off while it was in park. Once, the truck dragged its owner across a country road, with him hanging on to the door, and just missed going toward a hollow only because it rammed into a white oak tree.

A South Carolina woman meticulously detailed 23 defects including tires and brakes afflicting her 1984 Chevrolet Caprice Classic with only 8,224 miles on the odometer. She got especially upset when the dealer’s service manager told her that she expects too much from a car.

General Motors likes to keep complaints from reaching the cloistered men high up in executive suites. So I sent the Lemon Grove to Roger Smith. No answer. Why should he? GM is rolling in record profits on the backs of consumers — made possible by the import quotas on Japanese vehicles and by holding down theincrease in workers pay. Why should he? He and top GM executives have given themselves massive bonuses and they’ve got Ronald Reagan and federal regulators as passive as sedated pussy cats. No need to worry about the laws assuring Americans that cars will come safer, more fuel efficient, less polluting and with decently protective bumpers. As Roger Smith knows, that cumulative price increase for damage, injury and waste does not show up on the sticker price.

Turn on the television and you can scarcely avoid seeing GM brag wildly about itself — its quality control and its concern for your having safe vehicles.

Millions of your customer dollars this giant company is spending advertising the safety that isn’t in its cars. Today GM’s TV spots show the company crash-testing cars with anthropomorphic dummies. But in 1981, GM did not inform the public that it closed down its crack air bag development unit and disbanded a talented group of engineers and scientists. GM has been lobbying against the life-saving air bag.

That same year, Roger Smith declared that a quarter of all GM cars would be equipped with diesel engines before the end of the decade. Now GM announces cancellation of its diesel engine. Its announcement did hot mention the recurrent defect problems that tens of thousands of its customers have had with GM diesel cars and the litigation embroiling the company.

GM recalls are doing a brisk business and GM obstinacy blocking the recall of millions of additional lemon GM cars. The GM X car has been trouble incorporated. GM asserts that is cannot meet the legal fuel efficiency goal for its fleet this year without the government reducing the level below the 27.5 mpg that federal law mandated for 1955 fully ten years ago.

Finally, Roger Smith relentlessly pursues a policy of requiring taxpayer subsidies in local areas where GM wants to build or replace a plant. The latest victims of these unconscionable demands by the world’s second largest corporation were the taxpayers of Kansas City, Kansas where GM wants, for example, major property tax abatements and cheap= land that is now a small municipal airport. In Detroit, four years ago, it demanded and received a $350 million subsidy package from local, state and federal governments to build a highly automated Cadillac plant on the rubble of a once happily integrated neighborhood with 1500 households, 12 churches, a hospital and many small businesses.

Even thousands of its own white collar workers are now fighting GM for being transferred to the newly acquired company, EDS, with its reduced labor benefits. Roger Smith’s company is running amuck in ways that made its arrogance in the nineteen sixties small potatoes. But American history flows in cycles. Judging by the increasingly organized customers and other upset constituencies, GM may be heading for a rendezvous with humility before long.

<Readers interested in obtaining a free copy of The General Motors Lemon Grove (40 pages) should write to P. O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036. Please include 20 cents in stamps to cover first class postage.)