After waiting five weeks for General Motors to put a new, safe ignition system in her 2010 Chevy Cobalt, Gwendolyn Swain was starting to worry.
“I haven’t driven that car in three days, because I don’t have a good feeling about it,” Swain, 63, of Rocky Mount said. “I thought it would be treated as an emergency and I would be taken care of right away. The longer it takes, the more anxious I become.”
She drives one of 17 million cars GM has recalled this year to fix faulty ignition switches that have been implicated in 16 crash deaths since 2001. The cars are at risk of being jolted out of the “on” position – a dangerous shift that can disable air bags, power steering and brakes while the car is moving down the road.
Dealers for Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and other GM cars have ordered repair parts for thousands of car owners. In most cases, the fix involves a new ignition cylinder and ignition switch and new keys. When the parts arrive, the customer is asked to bring in the recalled car to make the repair.
“We’re working through a list of about 300, and about 60 percent of them are completed,” said George Anderson, owner of Sir Walter Chevrolet in Raleigh. “We don’t have too many people who are terribly upset, but it is frustrating to have your car recalled and not be able to get it (fixed) right away.”
Betty-Ann Landman has been waiting at least four months for Performance Chevrolet of Chapel Hill to get the repair parts for her 2003 Saturn Ion.
“They’ve got a long waiting list,” said Landman, 79, who lives in Chapel Hill.
GM announced the first batch of 2.6 million recalls in February, acknowledging that its engineers had discovered the faulty ignition switch in the Cobalt and similar models a decade ago.
Swain said her Cobalt has not given her any trouble lately. But she complained to her dealer about the ignition last year – before GM issued the recall.
“Sometimes when I turned it on, the key would jump,” Swain said. “It seemed like the key wanted to go a little further.”
GM tells drivers their cars are safe, for now, if they make a simple change while they wait for the repair: Remove everything from the key ring except the ignition key. Drivers say they are following this advice.
“My mailbox key was on it, my house key was on it, but not any more,” Landman said. “That key is all by itself.”
But some GM customers still feel uneasy driving their cars – and if they don’t want to drive them, they don’t have to. Across the country, General Motors is paying the rental-car bills for 26,000 car owners who decided to park their recalled cars on their dealers’ lots while they wait for the repair.
“We have an abundance of these cars on our lot; however, the numbers are getting smaller,” said John Reeves, operations manager for Thompson Buick Pontiac GMC Cadillac in Raleigh. “They belong to a number of people who were actually having a problem with the (ignition) mechanism, and people who expressed a concern about safety.”
All the car owner has to do is ask.
“There’s no litmus test for this,” said Alan Adler, a GM spokesman. “If you say, ‘I want a loaner vehicle because I don’t want to drive this car,’ we’ll do this.”
Swain said she got a different story when she requested a car from her dealer, Don Bulluck Chevrolet of Rocky Mount.
“They told me they didn’t have anything they could loan me,” Swain said. “They said most likely, larger facilities in Raleigh would provide that kind of service.”
Trey Bulluck, the dealer’s fixed operations manager, called back later to say there had been a misunderstanding.
“I just talked to Enterprise rental, and we’ll be glad to put her in one,” Bulluck told the Road Worrier. “We’ve got beaucoups of rentals out there – it’s about to drive Enterprise crazy. And we’ll tow Ms. Swain’s car in here if she wants us to.”
Swain was driving a Ford Focus, rent-free, by the end of the day Monday.
GM says it has replaced the ignitions in 388,000 cars so far. The company has three production lines churning out the ignition-repair kits.
Still, some car owners will be waiting a long time for their repairs.
“We’re working as fast as we can,” Adler said. “By October, we’ll have enough parts to fix every one of the Cobalts and other cars we recalled in February.”
The latest round of recalls, announced June 30, covers midsize cars dating to the 1997 model year. Georgie Brizendine of Raleigh thinks GM engineers eventually will find that the ignition problem is even older than that.
Her 1996 Oldsmobile Ciera sometimes would shut off while she was driving, and she struggled to stop the car without power brakes or steering. The dealer could not fix the problem, but GM offered her a $1,000 discount on a new Olds.
“I thought, look, I’m not going to do it twice,” said Brizendine, 83. “It was very, very scary.”
Brizendine had always liked General Motors cars. She was sorry to have to get rid of her Oldsmobile.
“I was so disgusted when I couldn’t get a resolution that I finally traded it in on a 2001 Honda Accord,” Brizendine said. “Which I still have.”