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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) As bad as it is now for Toyota Corp. and Toyota and Lexus owners, Mark Pinnock of Boston's Mattapan neighborhood is an example of the next crisis: A collapse of confidence in Toyotas and Lexuses as used cars.
Earlier this week, experts surveyed by the Associated Press predicted that Toyota could face at least $3 billion in class-action lawsuits from millions of U.S. Toyota and Lexus owners angry that their vehicles have lost resale value.
Pinnock, 39, who works for a local supermarket chain, is one story that helps make clear why this could be -- a man who thought he got a great deal on a used Lexus, but actually just inherited a major sudden-acceleration headache.
When Pinnock saw the 1999 Lexus LS-400 at a used-car lot in Hanover, south of Boston, seven years ago, he fell in love. "It was perfect. It was in clean condition in the showroom. It felt perfect to me and everything,'' Pinnock said. Another plus for the Jamaican immigrant and stock-car-racing fan: a powerful V-8 engine. He considered the $20,000 asking price a great deal.
What he hever knew: This was the exact same vehicle that had triggered one of the key first federal investigations of Toyota and Lexus sudden acceleration problems. As first reported by The Boston Globe Friday, its last owner was a Braintree man, Peter Boddaert, who'd had three such episodes, one that led to him accidentally rear-ending a van. Boddaert complained about the car to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, refused to drive it anymore, and traded it in towards a new car.
NHTSA, however, never took action on the complaint.
The problem just persisted for new owner Pinnock. "A couple of weeks after I got it,'' Pinnock said, he was driving on the Veterans of Foreign Wars Parkway in Boston and "I ran into this lady.'' He said he pressed on the accelerator and the car "just took off" and hit her in the rear bumper.
It happened twice more after his 2003 purchase of the car. Once was at a gas station-minimart near his home in Mattapan. He says, and Boston Police records confirm, that he was backing up the car when it took off and crashed into the front of a Mercedes owned by a Boston policeman. The on another occasion, he was driving down busy Norfolk Street near Clarkwood Street -- and nearly took the life of a bicyclist. "One evening I was coming from soccer,'' Pinnock said, "and the car just sped out [of control] and this guy was on the bike.'' The cyclicst quickly "hopped off the bike and pushed the bike, and the car run over the bike.'' By jumping off, that bicyclist probably saved his life.
After those incidents, and based on an uneasy feeling she got driving the car, Pinnock's wife decided she did not want to drive the vehicle anymore. About five months ago, he said, he finally "took off the insurance, and I parked it."
Only when a Globe reporter traced the Braintree car to Mark Pinnock through its VIN number did Pinnock learn it had that history of sudden acceleration that had led previous owner Peter Boddaert to get rid of the car and complain about it to federal safety regulators.
On top of Toyota's 8 million vehicle recalls and safety-image crisis after a spate of "runaway Prius" incidents or suspected incidents, a new set of woes could be the market for used Toyotas. Specifically, buyers worrying: How do I know that this Toyota or Lexus hasn't had a sudden-acceleration history?
Finding good records of whether a vehicle's had sudden acceleration is hard to impossible. These are not records that can be searched on a government website. What information NHTSA makes public has vehicle numbers and other information redacted. Buyers' only hope would be sellers disclosing if there had been a problem.
To be sure, these cases are the automotive equivalent of needles in haystacks anyway. Over the last decade, according to annual sales press releases published by Toyota on its toyota.com website, Toyota has sold around 2 million cars and trucks a year in the U.S. (ranging from about 1.8 million in 2003 and 2009 up to a peak of 2.62 million in 2007). In that same time period, there have been about 3,300 sudden-acceleration complaints made to NHTSA. That is fewer than one in every 6,000 Toyotas sold during that timeframe, although it is not clear to what extent uncontrolled-acceleration events have gone unreported to the government.
Notably, Toyota and Lexus have millions and millions of satisfied, repeat customers, and many think the incidence of sudden-acceleration problems has been overstated or sensationalized and remain confident Toyotas are at least as safe as other brands. Among them you can count Mark Pinnock.
"I love the car. I don't want to get rid of the car whatsoever,'' Pinnock said. However, on Friday he was trying to make an appointment with a Lexus dealer to get it repaired, and he hopes it may be covered under the recall campaign. "I just want them to fix it,'' Pinnock said, "and make sure it's safe for me and my family.''