A man demands a few grand for his stranded van

'When you're right, you fight,' Bill George says of dispute with Ford

I suppose it is possible that, in 2010, when Ford sent safety recall notices to 492,000 owners of Windstar minivans because of a rear-axle problem, it missed Mr. Philip George of Ocean City, Md., whom everyone calls "Bill."

It is equally possible that, a year later, when Ford mailed 425,000 recall notices because of another Windstar safety problem, it missed him again.

When a big company has problems on the scale of Ford's flawed Windstars of 1999 to 2003 — there were six recalls on the 2002 model alone — some customers just might never get the memo.

Bill George says he was one, and he's adamant about that.

He says he never received recall notices for his 2002 Windstar. As a result, he says, the subframe broke and the engine fell out of the van last summer. He wants Ford to compensate him for the van's Blue Book value, between $4,000 and 5,000.

"When you're right, you fight," he says.

Ford says it mailed George four recall notices about the subframe problems. Had he responded, the company says, damage to the engine could have been avoided.

Let me back this baby up and tell you what happened:

According to George, his fiancee, Lisa McDonald, was driving the Windstar eastbound on U.S. 50 on Aug. 14 when the engine fell out. "It literally landed on the highway," George wrote me in a letter. "The [steering] wheel spun around like a roulette wheel. ... Lisa called Berlin police, who directed traffic until a tow truck arrived.

"The tow truck driver said he had never seen anything like this, ever. The owner of the tow company [and] repair shop told us the subframe was the reason the engine fell out. He said it would cost thousands to fix it, if he even could. After going on the computer, we discovered that there was a recall on the subframe for that model and year."

Indeed, in 2011, Ford issued a subframe recall in 22 states and the District of Columbia for Windstars of the 1999-2003 model years. Recall notices went to 425,000 customers, according to a New York Times article. The notice said, "A separation of both front subframe body mounts may result in separation of the steering intermediate shaft."

And this, the notice added, "could result in reduced steering control, increasing the risk of a crash."

That was not the first Windstar recall. In 2010, Ford notified 492,000 owners about a problem with rear-axle corrosion. According to Motor Trend, the 2002 model also had recalls for problems with rear seats, speed control, front suspension and rear suspension.

Keith Griffin, an automotive writer and president of the New England Motor Press Association, has described the Windstar recalls as a "debacle." He says he still gets letters from consumers — one from Finland just the other day — about Windstar problems.

George's Windstar had clocked 105,000 miles before the engine fell out. He says a Ford dealership in Ocean City confirmed that a faulty subframe had caused the engine to drop. "After six weeks," he says, "it sounded like they were going to total the van and settle with us."

But that didn't happen. Ford only agreed to replace the subframe — not the engine. George thinks that's nuts, since a flaw in one part led to the damage of another.

He's steadfast in denying that he ever received recall notices for the van.

He's 59, retired with a disability; he says he often drove older friends to and from their medical appointments, or took them shopping. "If I knew there were problems with my van, I would have taken care of them," he says.

But a letter from a Ford legal analyst asserts that George had been unresponsive to four recall notices about the subframe issue in the past three years. "Ford Motor Company will still be happy to review your claim," the letter said. "However, your failure to have the required repairs performed will be considered in our assessment."

Additionally, the Ford representative said, George had not responded to a total of seven recall notices for the Windstar's rear-axle and speed-control problems.

Not true, according to George. He says he never received those notices.

His van, meanwhile, remains stranded at the local dealership. The service manager there declined to comment about George's problem, and representatives of Ford did not respond to questions about it, either.

"I had hoped I would have got another seven to 10 years out of that van," George says. "Everything else was in good condition."

What, the cup holders?

Look, I don't know how this is going to end. But it seems to me that there must have been something fundamentally wrong — an incorrect address? — in Ford's communication with this one customer in Ocean City. It's possible those notices just never reached him.

Maybe, instead of calling out the lawyers, Ford could show a little holiday spirit and settle up with George, maybe even spot him some cash toward another Ford vehicle. Just not a Windstar.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

 
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