Gas Tank Safety in 1973-87 GM Pickup Trucks: A Proposed Solution to the Hazard of Saddlebag
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Gas Tank Safety in 1973-87 GM Pickup Trucks: A Proposed Solution to the Hazard of Saddlebag

General Motors has refused to voluntarily recall and retrofit its pickup trucks with saddlebag gas tanks, even though its own internal records and testing experience in other models, and in proto-types, show that it has long mastered the engineering technology to enhance the safety of the gas tanks on these trucks.

Under the settlement of the national class action, the attorneys for truck owners have negotiated the funding of a special research project on gas tank safety and GM has agreed to contribute $4,100,000, over a three year period, to an independent research effort that will focus on gas tank safety. The research project will develop and implement feasible and practical means to enhance fuel system safety for motor vehicles, in order to reduce the incidence of injuries and deaths resulting from post-collision fires in cars, light duty trucks and other vehicles used for passenger transportation.

While that portion of the research project funded by GM cannot in any way involve vehicles more than 5 years old, other funding is not so limited. Attorneys for truck owners have voluntarily contributed $1,000,000 to fund research to specifically address the safety of 1973-97 General Motors C and K model trucks with side saddle tanks located outside of the frame rails beneath the passenger's and driver's doors.

The research project shall be funded following the effective date of settlement by General Motors' payment of a total of $4.1 million in equal annual installments for a period of 3 years. This is separate and apart from the contributions of plaintiff's counsel of $1,000,000 to the unrestricted research effort.

That gas tanks should not be located in crush zones has been well known by the automobile industry since before the 1960s and has been confirmed in the professional engineering literature in the United States and Europe for decades.

For example, General Motors in the 1940s and early 1950s sold trucks with the gas tank located inside the frame rails. In its pickup line, prior to placing the tank beneath the door, General Motors placed the tank inside the passenger compartment. While this location and an external filler cap that readily came off in half-rolls was the subject of extensive engineering criticism and lawsuits that GM lost, the general location on the vehicle in relationship to the frame and axles was good, although placement inside the passenger compartment was extremely risky.

The world automotive engineering community has recognized since the late 1960s that the most secure location for fuel tanks is inside of the frame, forward of the rear axle, separated by a firewall from the passenger compartment and protected from intrusion by brackets, suspension and underbody.

The following is a partial list of production vehicles with the gas tank located between the frame rails and either forward or above the rear axle, outside of the passenger compartment:

BRITISH LEYLAND Triumph TR7 1970-75; Triumph Spitfire 1961; Rover 1966-71;

CHRYSLER Simca 1000 1961; Matra-Sigma Baherra 1974;

DATSUN [NISSAN] Bluebird 1961, Datsun 1200 1971; B 210 1975-78; 200 SX 1975-78;PL 510 1971-73;PL 610 1972-74; PL 710, 1974; 710 1976; 810 1976-80;

FIAT 850 1968-74; 850 Spider 1971;

FORD Mercury Capri 1969-74;

GENERAL MOTORS Corvette 1957-61; Opel Kadett 1974; Opel Manta, 1974;

ISUZU 1976;

MAZDA 1800 1969-73; R 100 1970; 618 1971-83; 608 1972-76; 929 1974-75; RX-2 1972-74; RX 4 1973-75; Cosmo 1975-76;

MERCEDES BENZ 350SL since 1972; 450SE and 450 SEL since 1973; 280S since 1974 and all other models thereafter;

RENAULT R10 1969-70; 10STP 1971;

STUDEBAKER Avanti 1963;

SUBARU 1972;

TOYOTA Corolla 1969-79; Corona 1974-76; Selica 1974-77; Mark II 1973-76; Carina 1973-74 and Crown 1974.

For these manufacturers to have positioned the tank over the axle in these production years means that the engineering concept was well understood many years beforehand, well before final drawings were approved and before construction proto-types were given final approval as production vehicles.

The case history of the Chevrolet Corvette is particularly instructive. In 1975 the Chevrolet Corvette was unable to meet FMVSS 301 and not leak more than one ounce of gasoline a minute after a 30 mile per hour rear end moving barrier crash. GM's solution was to introduce a rubber bladder which provided the necessary protection against gas spillage inasmuch as the tank is located in the crush zone approximately 8 inches from the rear bumper. The history of bladders in competition race cars and in aircraft has been well documented with a variety of problems: deterioration, condensation, folding, cracking and the like. General Motors in 1978 introduced one of the safest gas tanks in the U.S. in its Corvette line by replacing the problematic rubber bladder with a High Density Poly-Ethylene ["HDPE"] liner.

HDPE is a common material for gas tanks today and an overwhelming number of safely positioned tanks on the road today are made of this plastic. It is capable of taking heavy blows and is slow to burn. It has proven itself as an automotive construction material in a number of applications.

Because the gas tank on the Corvette is directly in the crush zone for a rear impact, General Motors engineers encapsulated the HDPE tank within a standard metal tank and created a double-walled tank that has performed extremely well since 1978.

Based on the absence of fire claims from rear-end collisions suffered by Corvettes, and the vehicle's ability to be repeatedly certified by General Motors in compliance with FMVSS 301 for every production year since 1978, there is good reason to believe that a similar style HDPE/metal tank would enhance fuel system integrity of GM pickups with side saddle tanks.

General Motors's internal crash testing records indicate that an HDPE liner within a metal tank can provide a substantially higher level of protection than now exists.

On January 19, 1982, General Motors Safety Research & Development Laboratory Engineering Staff conducted a vehicle to vehicle left side impact crash test at GM's Proving Ground. The bullet vehicle was a Chevrolet Citation that was impelled directly into the left side of a 1982 Chevrolet K20 Pickup at an angle of 90 degrees and at a speed of 81.5 kph, or roughly 49 mph into the midpoint of the wheelbase, i.e. at the location of the gas tank. The pickup had been modified with a "20 gallon tank with plastic liner similar to [sic] 1982 Corvette." In the test this tank held 18.7 gallons. See GM Crash Testing Report C-5417. In this car-to-car crash test the rear tank strap separated on impact and the filler neck hose connection pulled apart at the connection to the fuel tank allowing the contents of the tank to be lost. In the slow motion film of this crash the tank itself withstood observable destruction.

On February 16, 1982, a similar crash test was conducted. See GM Crash Testing Report No. C-5434 which is incorporated by reference as though fully set forth. In this test a 1982 Chevrolet pickup was similarly struck at its left midpoint by a 1981 Chevrolet Citation at a speed of 85.9 kph or approximately 51 mph. This vehicle's gas tank was also modified with an interior Corvette style plastic liner. In the crash, only 44 grams of fuel leaked during impact from the fuel filler cap. The fuel tank spillage occurred due to an inadequate seal between the fuel filler neck and the fuel tank liner, but the fuel tank liner remained intact.

On May 27, 1982 GM engineers conducted a crash reported in See GM Crash Testing Report No.C-5496. Again a modified 1983 Chevrolet pickup with a Corvette style HDPE plastic tank liner was struck in a 90 degree side impact collision at 77.5 kph or approximately 47 miles per hour by a 1982 Chevrolet Citation. The impact produced extremely minor leakage, well within FMVSS allowable loss, in the total of 2 grams of fuel during the impact sequence itself due to a bolt at the front of the truck bed contacting the fuel line near the sending unit. The gas tank with plastic liner performed extremely well.

This crash testing when combined with the safety history of the Corvette crush zone fuel tank is a substantial foundation upon which to begin the independent safety testing and research of a retro-fit that will enhance the safety of these pickups.

Gas tanks lined with HDPE could be readily installed in the existing vehicle without modification of the gas tank compartment. A modified steel tank with a HDPE liner would fit into exactly the same space as the current tank. A modified sending unit that would attach directly to the new plastic/metal orifice would be necessary, but existing filler necks could be used to attach to the new safety tank. Existing hardware brackets would not need to be modified, although tank flat straps which have been roundly criticized as causing knife-like cuts into the metal tank should be replaced with wider, curved straps that use the existing brackets.

General Motors could have initiated this fix of its trucks, enhanced the safety of its products, saved lives, prevented burns, and proved to truck owners that GM stood behind its products. It did nothing, other than to claim in its advertising that GM trucks are made "like a rock."

As far as the 1973-87 C and K saddlebag gas tank models are concerned, letting marketing and sales staff increase the range of a truck by dictating a gas tank placement design that conflicts with common sense and good engineering practice is wrong. GM saddlebag gas tank pickups are not "made like a rock." If there are any aspects of the 1973-87 C and K model trucks that are rock-like, the best place to find these rocks would be in the heads of the executives who approved this design over the objections of fuel safety design and safety specialists.

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