These Deals Will Blow You Away

Should Local Buyers Watch Out for "Katrina Cars" ?

When Sandra and Mike Groody wanted to buy a car a few months ago, they found Maroone of Delray Beach and thought: Our vehicular problems are over. This was no fly-by-night outfit but part of the largest auto dealership in the state, with all of the integrity and reliability that such a status implied. Its public spokesman was, for gosh sakes, living legend Dan Marino, the football demigod of South Florida. "They were the car experts," Mike Groody says. And they had what the Groodys were looking for.

The sales staff at Maroone of Delray saw the Groodys and apparently thought: Suckers!

The Groodys, with five kids, three of them adopted, as well as a teenaged mom and a baby whom they had invited to live with them, wanted a Chevrolet Suburban. They needed a Suburban. Hurricane Wilma had shaken up their lives like Ping-Pong balls in a blender. Their house had been rendered unlivable, their cars were damaged, there were a million appointments and activities to keep up with, and they were temporarily living la vida chaotica in a hotel. The ample Suburban would serve as the family car for nine people.

Christopher Smith

Sure, Maroone General Manager Terry Leeder told them. They had the black model, just like the Groodys wanted. The child-proof leather seat covers they were asking for? Those could be installed in less than two days. Come on up.

When the Groodys went to pick up their vehicle on January 1, they signed the papers, then waited. And waited. A small hitch had developed. The vehicle was in some sort of security lockup, and the staff member with the keys had gone home. The next day, the Groodys say, they called and were told by a Maroone salesman that leather seats were being installed. Two days later, still no car. That leather was taking more time than expected. The service staff had also discovered a few scratches on the body, and they were fixing those.

Two weeks later, Maroone was still stalling. The Groodys finally got their car on January 21.

The next day, Mike Groody stepped out of his house and looked at his car in full sunlight. There was a different shade of paint on one door, and there were spidery marks all over it, as if the body had been buffed with steel wool. Groody, who is an insurance adjuster (he does homes, not cars), wasn't going to take a repainted car, whose value would have been $5,000 less than one with original paint, according to an expert he contacted. The Groodys wanted a new car, but they say Maroone refused to give them one.

Groody called General Motors, which checked the records of the Suburban and found nothing reported to them (as required by federal law) about new paint. On the other hand, there was the matter of a new fuel injection system and injectors having been installed while the Groodys waited. "Sounds like it could be a Katrina car," Groody says the GM man blurted out before buttoning up. Groody demanded to know where the Suburban had come from. Sorry, said various GM functionaries, they couldn't divulge that information.

The Groodys complained to Delray Beach Police, who referred them to the state Attorney General's Office, telling them that their complaint was a civil matter. The Groodys' own expert, a Palm Beach-based auto broker who asked that his name be withheld, used a laser micrometer to measure the thickness of the paint, and he checked the electronic systems. His opinion was that the condition of the Groodys' Suburban was consistent with that of a "hurricane car." Like thousands of other cars that were immersed in rain and seawater during Katrina and Wilma, it had probably been recycled through a state where laws are not rigorous about identifying prior damages on auto titles, lawyers and brokers consulted by the Groodys said.

The Groodys are probably in the vanguard of what promises to be a long procession of dissatisfied car buyers, says Jim Butler, president of the Florida Automotive Recyclers Association.

"Introduce brackish or saltwater into an automotive electrical system and over a period of time, it'll cause problems," Butler says. It may take up to two years before car radios start conking out, air bags fail to deploy, antilock brakes lock up, and other systems fail, he says. But it's inevitable.

Maroone's Leeder referred Tailpipe to Mark Cannon, vice president for communications of AutoNation, Maroone's parent company and the nation's biggest car dealer (cofounded by Fort Lauderdale billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga). Cannon had no detailed knowledge of the Groodys' car, but he said the company would investigate. "That's what we're here for," Cannon said. "To get a happy, satisfied customer." Cannon did not deny that the SUV may have been storm damaged.

After Tailpipe talked to Cannon, the Groodys say Maroone made them an offer just before press time: they'd buy the SUV back for the purchase price (less $900 for the mileage the Groodys put on it) if the Groodys took back everything they'd told this auto part for this story. Tailpipe can't wait to see how this one turns out.

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