General Motors Corp. is recalling more than 207,000 Buick Regal and Pontiac Grand Prix sedans and urgently warning owners not to park them in garages or other structures because they can catch fire.

 

The fire-prone vehicles are the 1997-2003 Buick Regal GS and Grand Prix GDP models with 3.8-liter supercharged V-6 engines.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported on its Web site that, Fires may be caused by drops of engine oil being deposited on the exhaust manifold through hard braking.

A fire can start if the oil gets hot enough, NHTSA warned. The safety agency 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."

Both NHTSA and GM strongly warned owners of the Pontiac and Buick vehicles not to park them in garages or other structures until the fire hazard is eliminated.

General Motors does not have sufficient parts to repair all of the Pontiac and Buick cars that are at risk of catching fire.

GM is advising Buick and Pontiac owners of the affected models by mail, telling them the vehicles are safe to drive but unsafe to be parked in garages or carports until the fire hazard is eliminated.

GM advised consumers that if they smell the car burning they should take the vehicle to a dealership for inspections.

Until GM is able to produce the parts to eliminate the fire hazard, NHTSA issued a strongly worded warning from the automaker on its Web site urging owners of the recalled Pontiacs and Buicks to observe the following important precautions from the automaker:

1. GM strongly recommends that owners do not park their vehicle in a garage, car port or other structure.

2. If owners notice a burning odor they should have the dealer inspect the vehicle. The dealer will perform the inspection without charge.

3. Owners should use premium 91-octane or higher gasoline in their Buick or Pontiac as recommended in the owner manual. The higher octane gasoline allows the engine to run cooler. Lower octane fuel increases temperatures under the hood increasing the risk of a fire.

GM reported to NHTSA that the company knows of 267 Buick and Pontiac vehicle fires and six injuries, five of them minor and one moderate. The hazard has caused 17 structure fires, according to GM.

GM is working with suppliers to get the parts to fix the problem, and owners will be notified as soon as the parts are available though GM executives gave no indication how long it would take to get the parts.

Consumers can contact NHTSA at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153).

Long-standing problem

Consumers have reported fires with the Pontiac Grand Prix and Buick Regal to ConsumerAffairs.com for at least four years.

In 2006, a Virginia man watched as his Pontiac burned on the side of the road.

Within five minutes of parking his Pontiac Grand Prix, the car lit up a suburban Virginia highway in roaring orange flames that turned the car to charred metal, melted plastic and burned rubber.

There are roughly 2500,000 similar car fires reported in the U.S. each year, killing hundreds of people.

Here are several more GM fire reports sent to ConsumerAffairs.com.

In Brush Prairie, Washington last year, a Buick owner watched as his 2000 Regal caught fire. I drove my 2000 Buick Regal to lunch and returned home after driving approximately 50 miles, he wrote.

I parked car in front of garage. About 10 minutes after arriving home I heard an unusual noise outside. I went to the door and saw smoke rolling under eaves. I went outside to find fire coming out grill of car and flames reflecting under car, he reported.

ConsumersAffairs.Com received a similar report from a Pontiac owner in Arlington Heights, Illinois November 16, 2007. I own a Pontiac Grand Prix GTP. It started on fire. I had fire department to put fire out. Half of the car is burned, he told us.

On May 19, 2007 a Pontiac Grand Prix in New Jersey erupted into flames. It is noteworthy to say that before escaping the car, I looked at the temperature gauge, and it showed no increase in temperature, he told us.

The arson inspector who came after the fire was put out said that the fire seemed to be contributed to a short circuit in the car's electrical wires

On May 25, 2007 a 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix in Wisconsin began to smoke. I pulled over on a side road and within 10 minutes the car was completely on fire, the consumer reported. The car is destroyed. It got so hot the rims melted.

Roast pork

In what has to be one of the oddest events reported to ConsumerAffairs.com, a woman was driving with her family through Crockett, Virginia "when another vehicle coming in the opposite direction hit a 800-pound hog in the road sending it airborne.

"The hog hit the hood of our van deploying our airbags and destroying the front of our van." The van "ignited into flames ... in a matter of a couple minutes it was totally gutted. We are not sure what caused the fire and no one seems to know either," she told us.The person who owned the hog may not be held responsible but that is still under investigation by the Crockett police, she said.

As the many complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com demonstrate, cars can and do catch fire, both when they're running and when they're parked.

What to do

Here's what you can do if it happens to you:

• If possible, pull to the side of the road and turn off the ignition. Pulling to the side makes it possible for everyone to get out of the vehicle safely. Turn off the ignition to shut off the electric current and stop the flow of gasoline. Put the vehicle in park or set the emergency brake; you don't want the vehicle to move after your leave it.

• Do not open the hood because more oxygen can make the fire larger and expose you to a sudden flare-up.

• Make sure everyone gets out of the vehicle, but do not waste time and increase your risk by removing personal belongings. Move at least 100 feet away. Keep traffic in mind and keep everyone together. There is not only danger from the fire, but also from other vehicles moving in the area.

• Call 911. Firefighters are trained to combat vehicle fires. Never return to the vehicle to attempt to fight the fire yourself. Vehicle fires can be tricky, even for firefighters. Pressurized components can burst or explode, spilling or spraying highly flammable liquids, or eject projectiles that can cause serious injuries.