DETROIT — General Motors issued its third recall in seven years for cars that can leak oil and catch fire, in some instances damaging garages and homes.
The recall, which covers 1.4 million vehicles dating to the 1997 model year, is needed because repairs from the first two recalls didn’t work. More than 1,300 cars caught fire even after they were fixed by dealers, the company said.
A valve cover gasket can degrade over time, allowing oil to seep out. Under hard braking, oil drops can fall onto the exhaust manifold and catch fire. Flames can spread to a plastic spark plug wire channel and the rest of the engine.
GM says it has reports of 19 minor injuries in fires caused by the cars. The company is finalizing a fix for the latest recall, and will use state registration databases in an effort to track down the owners and notify them by mail, said spokesman Alan Adler.
In the previous recalls, in 2008 and 2009, GM told owners to park the cars outside until repairs can be made since most of the fires happened shortly after drivers turned off the engines. Adler said he doesn’t know if GM will make the same recommendation again.
The latest recall, mainly in North America, includes: the 1997-2004 Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Regal; the 2000-2004 Chevrolet Impala; the 1998 and 1999 Chevrolet Lumina and Oldsmobile Intrigue; and the 1998-2004 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. All have 3.8-liter V6 engines.
In addition, GM will notify owners of 500,000 more cars that were not repaired in the previous recalls, he said.
The problem first surfaced in 2007, when 21 consumer complaints about engine fires in some of the cars prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate. That probe found three injuries. Most of the blazes happened five to 15 minutes after the engines were turned off, according to agency documents.
In March 2008, GM recalled more than 200,000 U.S. cars with supercharged engines. A year later the automaker recalled almost 1.5 million more cars that weren’t supercharged. Dealers replaced the spark plug wire channels on all the vehicles.
GM decided to replace the left valve cover gasket on the supercharged engines, but it did not do so on cars without the high-performance engines. Company tests showed that if oil caught fire, it would be a small “pilot flame” that would extinguish itself, Adler said. So the company focused on removing or replacing nearby plastic parts. “You want to get anything that can burn away from it,” he said.
Earlier this year, when GM added 50,000 2004 models to the recalls, it replaced valve cover gaskets on those vehicles, Adler said.
The 1,300 fires were discovered when GM began investigating whether to recall some 2004 models that weren’t part of the earlier recalls, Adler said.
There is plenty of evidence of the problem in the consumer complaint database kept by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which the agency monitors for safety problems.
For instance, of the 242 consumer complaints filed about the 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix, more than one quarter were about engine fires. The first complaint was filed in December of 2005, and the most recent was last month.
Messages were left Tuesday for agency spokesman Gordon Trowbridge seeking comment on whether NHTSA should have noticed that the initial repairs appeared not be working.
In most of the complaints, fires broke out within a few minutes of the cars being parked, but some happened while the cars were being driven. In a small number, cars caught fire in a garage and damaged the building.
A supercharged Grand Prix caught fire in a garage in Charlotte, North Caroline, on Sept. 10, 2006, and the flames quickly spread, according to one complaint. “The fire caused extensive damage to my home and my neighbor’s home,” the car owner wrote. Owners are not identified in the NHTSA database.
Another driver in Spring Valley, Illinois, told NHTSA that a Grand Prix caught fire in September of 2011, three months after the recall repairs were made.
The recall is so large that it could have an impact on GM’s fourth-quarter earnings, although Adler said that hasn’t been determined.
“Since we have not decided on the remedy, we do not know whether the cost will result in a material charge to earnings,” he said.