Score three for the customer, zero for the Ford Motor Company.
The results are in for the first month of Ford's new program to handle unresolved customer complaints about car repairs and service in the Metropolitan Washington area and Maryland.
Ford last month set up a five-member Consumer Appeals Board here to hear complaints that cannot be settled between the customer and the auto dealer or Ford's regional service office. The board's decisions (by majority vote) are binding on Ford and its dealers, but not on the customer, who can seek other legal remedies if he or she chooses.
In its first meeting in Bethesda last week, the board - whose members include three consumer representatives, a Ford dealer and a Lincoln-Mercury dealer - voted unanimously that Ford:
Replace a customer's new $15,000 Lincoln Versailles because of problems with the emission-control system.
Repaint a customer's blue Ford Mustang, bought new last year. The car had become spotted as a result of what is termed "industrial fallout" that periodically seems to afflict metallic paint on cars on the East Coast.
Split with the customer the cost of repainting a silver 1976 Ford LTD with the same spotting problem.
A fourth complaint involving a Ford pickup truck that "threw a rod" at 26,000 miles was set aside for further study.
"All in all, it was a good day for the consumer," says William W. Lovell of the American Automobile Association, one of the consumer representatives whose experience with autos includes nine seasons as a race-car driver.
But, says panel member Dick Blanken of Dick Blanken Ford of Arlington, "I'm not sure Ford Motor Company is going to think it went well."
All three major U.S. car manufacturers seem to be heading toward settling unresolved service complaints through an independent agent. Since 1977, Ford has established consumer appeals boards in North Carolina, New Jersey and Washington-Oregon. One for Virginia (except Northern Virginia, covered by the Metropolitan Washington panel) also was established last month. Two more panels are in the planning stage.
Chrysler has been testing since March 1 a similar five-member panel in Nassau County on Long Island, N.Y. (unlike Ford's set-up, only the consumer representatives have a vote), and General Motors is trying a one-person arbitration system (binding on both the customer and GM) in cooperation with the Better Business Bureaus of the San Francisco area, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Buffalo.
Ford sees its panels as giving its customers "the opportunity to get impartial hearings . . . without having to go to attorneys to initiate costly and time-consuming legal actions."
Since ads began appearing in local newspapers, Ford has been receiving as many as 30 calls a day from customers seeking information about the board, according to Gene Schempf, Ford's owner-relations manager in the Washington district office. As a result, the local panel's caseload is expected to be much higher at its next monthly meeting in July.
In the case of the Lincoln Versailles, the board "agonized a long time over its decision that the customer be given a new replacement," says James J. Jones, administrator of the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs and chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Consumer Agencies. Only twice before has a panel called for a replacement car, said a Ford spokesman in Dearborn, Mich.
What apparently happened is that the customer was sold a car here with an emission-control system designed to meet California's more stringent exhaust regulations. The California system gives the car a higher idle, and when the gears are shifted there is often a loud clunk. Californians are used to it, but not drivers in the other 49 states, the panel concluded, so they told Ford to give the customer the non-clunking car he expected when he paid his $15,000.
Jones says the emission systems could have been switched at a cost of perhaps $200 but that is against Environmental Protection Agency rules. The customer is to pay 10 cents a mile for the 4,000 miles he put on the car, the panel decided, but Ford is to pick up the tax and title fees in the changeover.
According to Lovell, metallic paint on cars, particularly silver metallic and blue metallic, occasionally show spotting or color change on the East Coast. The cause is unknown, he says, but it is called "industrial fallout" and shows up more frequently in the summer.
"Silver looks good in the show room, but it's not a happy color for the real world," says Lovell. He estimates the cost of repainting each car at $350 to $500. (The customer who got the whole job paid for by Ford was still within the 12,000-mile, 12-month warranty.) The message to Ford, suggests Blanken, is "don't sell the wrong-colored cars on the East Coast."
Though it didn't happen last week, customers and dealers may appear before the board if it is felt their presence is necessary.
Other panel members are Barbara B. Gregg, executive director of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, and Carl W. Brand, president of Dulaney Motor Company of Timonium, Md.
Under the Ford program, customers who have a service complaint should first go to the dealer. If they don't get satisfaction there, they should call the Ford Parts and Service Division district office in Falls Church: 698-1900. An owner-relations representative will try to work out a solution, Ford says.
If that doesn't work, customers should then contact the local appeals board at (800) 241-8450 or P.O. Box 696, Merrifield, Va. 22116. A form will be sent, and the customer should outline the case to the appeals board. The address of the Virginia board is Ford Consumer Appeals Board of Virginia, P.O. Box 307, Sandston, Va. 23150.