European Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt, Germany
Thomas Lambert will never again put his money where his mouth is.
When the Air Force senior master sergeant walked into the General Motors new-car sales office on Aviano AB, Italy, in January 1990, the salesman told him that if he had the money he could be driving a new van in a few months.
Two days later, Lambert paid the salesman nearly $14,000 for a 1990 GMC Safari.
“All they had to do was order it,” he said in a telephone interview from his new home at Barksdale AFB, La.
Seven months passed and Lambert – “feeling frustrated and cheated” – accepted delivery of a completely different vehicle, a Plymouth Voyager.
His mistake, he said, was paying for his “dream van” in advance.
Lambert said he decided to cancel his deal with Overseas Military Sales Corp. when his new van failed to show up more than six months after he paid for it. But everyone from “the salesman to the president of the company” resisted his requests for a refund, he said.
Overseas Military Sales Corp. is the company that sells Chrysler and General Motors cars to military members in Europe. Jeff Gardner, general manager of OMSC, said company employees resisted his requests for a refund because they did not want Lambert to go away “unsatisfied.”
Lambert said he had saved for years to be able to pay cash for a new van. He and his wife studied all the models and decided on the 1990 GMC Safari. They placed their order and paid for the vehicle in January. The salesman said the van would be delivered to a port in the United States sometime in April and would arrive in Germany by June.
“In May, I decided to check if our van had made it to the stateside port,” Lambert said. “It hadn’t.”
That delay meant the Safari would not arrive before July, which Lambert said was acceptable.
“But why didn’t anyone inform me of the delay?” he asked.
When the van had not been delivered to the stateside port by June, the situation was no longer acceptable.
After Lambert threatened to cancel the deal, the salesman offered a $375 reduction in the price of the van if he could wait two more weeks, he said. Two weeks became three, and three weeks became five: The Lamberts “were past the irate stage and were furious,” he said.
Lambert demanded his money back from the Aviano dealer, citing what he thought was his right to cancel the deal if the delivery date was not met.
A salesman told Lambert that the reason for the delay was that the factory could not meet the delivery date and that OMSC was not responsible, he said.
However, Gardner said last December that OMSC had the van, but company employees at a port in Baltimore had failed to turn it over to military transportation officials.
For Lambert, things went from bad to worse. While waiting for his van to arrive, the engine failed on the family car, leaving the Lamberts with no transportation.
“The problem was that I had already paid for the van,” Lambert said. “In the States, I would have gotten my money back and gone to another dealer.”
Because Lambert elected to use the free transportation offered by the military, he had to pay OMSC the full price for the vehicle before the company would ship the van overseas, Gardner said. Cars shipped overseas by the military are considered delivered when they are signed for by stateside military port officials. The car sales companies are no longer responsible for what happens to the vehicle.
Had Lambert chosen to use commercial transportation, he would have had to pay only a $300 deposit for the van. The balance would have been due when it was delivered.
It is common practice for salespeople to push customers to pay for a car as soon as financing is approved, said Marr Jones, a former OMSC agent working for one of the company’s off-base competitors.
“Once we have a person’s money, it is easy to stall on a refund. Usually, they will wear down and take what you offer them before demanding a refund,” Jones said.
OMSC would have returned Lambert’s money at any time, had he insisted, Gardner said.
“But when we screw up, and sometimes it happens, we’re not just going to walk away from the deal,” Gardner said. “We want to do everything we can to put the customer in a new vehicle.”
In late July, with the Safari still unaccounted for, the Aviano dealer offered the Lamberts a van the company already had in stock in Bremerhaven. There were no GMC Safaris in stock, however, and the Lamberts accepted the Plymouth Voyager.
“They virtually had us,” Lambert said. “We’d been without a car for four months.”
The Lamberts took three days off in August and flew to Bremerhaven to pick up the van. After a 12-hour wait, the couple drove away in the Voyager.
Lambert said the Plymouth “is OK, but certainly not our dream vehicle.”