GM went on the offensive defending pickups
Company had 'Dateline NBC' in its cross-hairs; Harry Pearce pulled the trigger
In Feb. 8, 1993, General Motors summoned several hundred reporters to a press conference. Some came in person while other reporters, GM dealers and employees watched on a live satellite feed.
GM set up the event to defend its full-sized Chevrolet and GMC pickups from allegations that a design flaw made them prone to bursting into flames in side-impact crashes. But reporters in the audience soon sensed a bigger message that day: After years on the ropes, the General was coming out swinging -- hard.
Until then, GM had endured numerous body blows. Its market share had slumped to 34 percent in 1992, down 10 points from the previous decade. Almost every other year, it seemed, the automaker shuttered more factories.
The allegations against the 1973-87 C/K pickups were just one of several headaches GM faced, but one with huge financial implications. The pickups were among GM's highest-volume and most profitable vehicles. If the public decided the trucks were unsafe and stopped buying them, GM's earnings would be devastated.
Then there was the legal liability. On Feb. 4, 1993, a jury in Atlanta had ruled that GM owed the family of Shannon Moseley $4.24 million. The teenager had died when his truck erupted into flames after a drunken driver broadsided it. In addition, the jury awarded punitive damages of $101 million -- $20 each for each of the nearly 5 million suspect pickups on the road. More trials loomed.
The dispute centered on the placement of the pickups' fuel tanks. GM had installed so-called sidesaddle fuel tanks on both sides of the trucks and outside the trucks' heavy frame, leaving only the exterior sheet metal to protect them. On other pickups, the fuel tank was in the rear and, typically, inside the frame.
GM argued that even if the tanks' placement made them more susceptible to a side impact, other pickups' tanks were more vulnerable to a rear impact. But that's not how much of the public saw it, especially after watching sensational footage on a Nov. 17, 1992, broadcast of "Dateline NBC" of a pickup bursting into flames after a car slam-med into it.
But GM had "Dateline NBC" in its cross-hairs. Harry Pearce, GM's general counsel, pulled the trigger.
Over two hours, Pearce gave a performance worthy of a TV courtroom drama, walking the gathered journalists through GM's forensic investigation of the crash shown on the TV program.
GM had its doubts about the crash and fire shown on NBC, he said. It had tracked down the burned-out hulks of the pickups used by the TV crew and examined them, along with a video of the TV crew setting up and filming the crash and subsequent fire. The crash had supposedly punctured the gas tank, spilling the fuel that led to a fireball in the broadcast, but GM couldn't find any puncture hole in the tank.
Ah, but what's this? See that small flare before the moment of impact? What caused that?
Pearce knew exactly what had caused it. "Dateline," after repeatedly crashing cars into the pickups and failing to provoke a fire, had rigged the trucks with model rocket engines to ignite fires. The leaking gasoline was due to a faulty gasoline cap. A previous owner of one of the trucks used in the show admitted he had lost the original cap and replaced it with one he had bent to fit. Fumes had escaped from an open filler neck after the ill-fitting cap had been spit out by the force of the crash.
Pearce's devastating expose of "Dateline's" rigged pickup fires didn't entirely turn the tide of public opinion in favor of GM. But it forced NBC to issue an on-air apology and to agree to pay all the costs GM had incurred in investigating the bogus broadcast.
And the world knew that Chevy would stand, like a rock, behind its pickups.
You can reach James B. Treece at firstname.lastname@example.org.