GM Recalls Buick Regals, Pontiac Grand Prixs

March 17, 2008

When Andy Buhaj heard the first boom from outside his parents’ house one night last month, he ignored it and stayed in bed, thinking it was his dad putting another log on the fire.

When he heard another boom, he looked out the window.

It’s a good thing he did.

The front of his girlfriend’s 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP was on fire in the driveway, and the flames were getting perilously close to their house in Manheim Township, N.Y., about 60 miles from Albany.

The car is one of the models that General Motors Corp. is recalling because of a risk that they can catch fire. The company and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced the recall of 207,542 Grand Prix GTP and Buick Regal GS models, warning owners not to park them in garages or any other structure until an oil leak problem is repaired.

“I looked out the window and the whole yard was lit up orange,” Buhaj, 25, said in a telephone interview. “I ran downstairs yelling to my dad that the house was on fire.”

Andy and his father were able to hook a tow line from the Pontiac to his father’s truck and yank it away from the house. But by then, the flames had melted the home’s siding and damaged the paint on the truck, which had been parked next to the blazing car.

Firefighters arrived to put out the blaze and make sure the flames hadn’t spread to the house.

“If my husband and son hadn’t intervened, we would have had a lot more loss,” said Buhaj’s mother, Laura Buhaj.

Firefighters determined the cause was accidental, of possible electrical origin, said Roger Cromer, chief of the Dolgeville Volunteer Fire Department, which responded to the Feb. 8 blaze.

GM said it is recalling the 1997-2003 cars, equipped with 3.8-liter supercharged V-6 engines.

During hard braking, drops of oil can leak from the engine onto the exhaust manifold, and fires can start if the oil gets hot enough, the NHTSA said on its Web site.

GM spokeswoman Carolyn Markey said the problem has caused 267 vehicle fires and six injuries, five of them minor and one moderate. It also has caused 17 fires in structures, GM said.

The NHTSA said that if the exhaust manifold is hot enough and the oil gets below a heat shield, “it may ignite into a small flame and in some cases fire may spread to the plastic spark plug wire channel.”

Markey said GM sent letters to the owners telling them the vehicles are safe to drive, but they should not be parked in garages, carports or other structures until the problem is repaired.

The automaker is working with suppliers to get the parts to fix the problem, and owners will be notified as soon as the parts are available, Markey said. She did not know how long it would take to get the parts but said it would be soon.

If owners smell burning, they should take their car to a dealership for inspection, she said.

“Consumers can always can go to their dealership if they do smell something and are concerned,” she said.

They also should run premium 91 octane fuel, which is recommended for the cars, she said.

“Lower octane fuel increases under-hood temperatures during operation,” Markey said.

Markey said there are, “Very, very low incidences of vehicles actually catching fire while driving.”

Andy Buhaj said the fire has left his parents with insurance deductibles for repairs to their home and his father’s truck. But he’s glad he got out of bed to check out the noise.

“I was just going to brush it off and go to sleep,” he said. “If he didn’t have insulation stuffed up in the trusses where the attic is, the sparks could have gotten up there and the whole house could have caught fire.”

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

General Motors Corp.

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