WASHINGTON -- Years before Chrysler stunned the auto industry by refusing to recall 2.7 million Jeep vehicles deemed unsafe by regulators, the company was fending off complaints from an old adversary: Clarence Ditlow.
It was Ditlow, 69, the longtime executive director of the Center for Auto Safety and an early acolyte of the safety crusader Ralph Nader, who spurred the investigation with a 2009 petition that claimed the behind-the-axle fuel tank design of older Jeep Grand Cherokees made them prone to fiery crashes.
Two weeks ago, he sent a letter to Fiat Chairman John Elkann urging Jeep's current owner to recall the vehicles "before more little children die."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 51 people have died in fiery crashes in which the Jeeps in question were struck from behind. Chrysler maintains that the vehicles have been safer than many competing models in such crashes.
If Ditlow knew that NHTSA and Chrysler were at an impasse, he did not tell reporters at the time. But he was quick to crow once Chrysler said it would not recall the vehicles.
"I told you this was big news," he said in an interview Tuesday.
It is not the first time Ditlow has helped get an automaker into a tough situation over an alleged safety defect.
Starting in the 1980s, he led a campaign to pressure General Motors to recall its full-sized C/K pickups from the 1973-87 model years. They had so-called sidesaddle fuel tanks that were outside the trucks' heavy frame, leaving only the exterior sheet metal to protect them. Critics said the tanks could leak fuel and burst into flames if struck from the side.
GM refused to recall the trucks, instead writing $1,000 vouchers for C/K owners to buy new vehicles. But after years of litigation, the company ultimately had to pay $51 million in its settlement with the government and more than $500 million in civil penalties.
In 1995, Ditlow leaked a Chrysler document that referenced a wave of complaints about an antilock brake system used in the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan, even as the company publicly claimed there was no pattern of problems.
This time, Ditlow projects Chrysler could repair the Jeeps for about $300 million -- or about $100 per vehicle. Chrysler would not comment on potential costs. It would be an expensive fix, but civil penalties could cost a lot more if Chrysler refuses to recall the vehicles, Ditlow said.
He added: "I'm confident in the ingenuity of Chrysler's engineers to come up with a fix for under $100."