When General Motors Lost Me
SEVERAL CITIES AND STATES -- Watching TV tonight there was a story about how GM was losing business because they weren't building cars that people wanted or that quality was poor. But 28 years ago GM lost me forever, not because of quality or that the car was unsatisfactory. All new car models have some teething problems to sort out. They lost me because of dealer arrogance and non-service from the hour I drove the new thing from the dealer showroom.
In 1981 I decided to "Buy American" again. I had owned Fords from 1928 models through 1957. Then I owned various Volkswagens, a Plymouth, a Chrysler New Yorker, a Triumph 2000 in Britain, and finally a 1973 BMW 2002. None of these cars had been fault free, but I never had experienced dealer arrogance and refusal to work with me as I did with all but one GM dealership.
In 1981 I was working in Houston, owning the BMW, and needing a second car, primarily for my wife to drive. The 1981 Buick Century was a highly advertised new model with front wheel drive and a number of innovations. I had looked at several cars and decided on the Buick. Buying American was a large factor in my decision.
Following negotiations, I picked up the car from the dealer, Hub Buick, and was a proud owner for about 10 minutes until I noticed that the gas gage was showing empty. When I pulled into a station for a fill-up, the attendant said, "Say, you should do something about that tire." With about 25 miles on the odometer, I replied that there couldn't be anything wrong with the tire. But there was. Bare Cord was showing over a six inch patch of a rear tire. Needless to say, I hurried back to Hub Buick to inform my formerly helpful salesman of the problem. His reply was that "it had nothing to do with the car dealer" and that any recourse that I might have had to come from the tire dealer, who was closed by that time. I drove the car about 30 miles home on the freeway, holding my breath. The next day I took off from work to drive back into Houston to seek help from the tire dealer. His reply was that. "it had nothing to do with him", but was the responsibility of the transporter who had not properly secured the car to the rail car or highway transport, he did not know which. Another visit to Hub Buick was equally fruitless. The next day I replaced all four tires with a set of Michelins at my own expense.
About two weeks later my wife called me from home to my office to tell me that she couldn't start the car. I got somewhat in the doghouse by implying that may be she didn't understand such a fine high tech automobile. When I got home, I applied the routine: check ignition (there was spark); Check gasflow to the injectors, there was none. Check fuel filter, no gas to the fuel filter. Then check the fuel pump, which I couldn't find. I came to the reluctant realization that it had to be inside the tank; a situation that was beyond my troubleshooting ability.
A call to Hub Buick did result in a wrecker to drag the thing from Clear Lake to center of Houston. They confirmed that the problem had to be a faulty fuel pump which reqired dropping the tank and installing a new pump. But the rub was that with such a new model, there were no spare fuel pumps in Houston. Three weeks later they did manage to find a pump, but there was no offer of a loan car, so I had to pay for a renter those three weeks.
Several months later I was back home in Baton Rouge when the first scheduled checkup came up. Though at the time it was running OK, I took it to the nearby Buick dealer/service organization for the recommended service. After getting the thing back, the next day my wife drove it about 22 miles to Denham Springs for her art lesson. That afternoon she called with the information that the Century would not start. This time I knew better than to question her competence to start the thing. A call to the Buick dealer/service place resulted in their sending a wrecker to Denham Springs to bring it back to Baton Rouge. The result was that I had to pay $110 for the wrecker service, but they did replace a faulty distributor rotor button for free. At the scheduled service, they had replaced a perfectly good rotor button with the faulty one.
The final straw was on a trip from Baton Rouge to Orlando. Somewhere east of Pensacola the thing lost power and began belching black smoke. We stopped at a town in the panhandle, rented a motel, and, next morning, took it to the Buick dealer. They said that it probably was the oxygen sensor that had failed, but that they could do nothing about it because they had no spares. We struggled on to Orlando at about 40 mph, laying down a smoke screen that would have done a WWII destroyer proud.
In the nearly four years that I had it, there was only one good dealer experience. The Buick dealer in Orlando took the thing in, provided a loaner car so that our Epcot Center/Disney World trip was not lost, and was able to repair the thing for our return. I don't remember the cost, it may even have been covered by warranty. But living too far from Orlando to use that dealer caused me to leave GM for all time. Shortly after, before the catalytic converter crashed, we traded it for an '85 Volvo 740. We have had nothing but Volvos since, and never have had a poor Volvo dealer experience in spite of driving each of them over 145000 miles.
The only really good thing about that Century was how the front wheel drive handled snow and ice on ski trips to Colorado.
I have never missed an opportunity to tell my family, friends, and others of my experience with Buick dealers, and I assume that the rest of the GM dealers are the same. Lately I had a similar experience on taking a friend's Chevrolet Malibue to the dealer to replace a radiator cap. Until the service person tried it himself, he implied that I was too stupid to remove the radiator cap. But when he tried it himself, he couldn't either. The handgrip part of the cap had separated from the rest of the cap and it took special tools to accomplish the feat. Things have not changed much lately. Last year I took Buick up on an offer of a Golf shirt if I would test drive a 2008 Lucern. The dealer sales person did not seem to know the difference between a Lucerne and a Lacrosse. I was taken out in a Lacross, and when I questioned the difference, was told that there wasn't much except the price. They did give me the shirt. Even if the offer had been a free Cadillac I think I would turn it down or give it to charity. Maybe not: I wouldn't have wanted the charity to have to deal with GM dealers.