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Car’s 2d owner finds trouble, too

Safety agency to revisit ’03 complaint about Lexus

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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Not long after buying his used Lexus in 2003, Mark Pinnock discovered that the luxury sedan’s motor sometimes raced on its own, twice causing fender-benders. A mechanic friend told him it was a quirk of its powerful eight-cylinder engine.

What Pinnock didn’t know was that the car, manufactured by Toyota Motor Corp., had a checkered history — it had prompted the first of what would become a series of federal investigations into mysterious acceleration in Toyota-made cars.

The car’s previous owner, a retiree from Braintree named Peter Boddaert, had complained in 2003 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about three episodes of spontaneous acceleration, including one that caused him to rear-end a van. He grew too scared to drive the car, and traded it in.

Federal investigators looked into Boddaert’s complaint, but did not go so far as to examine the car, ultimately dismissing the case.

Now, they have new interest in that aging Lexus.

Following the recent recalls of roughly 8.5 million Toyota vehicles to replace floor mats and repair gas pedals, national safety officials “will be contacting the current owners of Mr. Boddaert’s car to gather more information,’’ NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

Aldana said that, as the agency investigates Toyota’s current issues, it will examine specific cars whose owners reported problems with bursts of speed.

The new interest in the case comes after Pinnock, the current owner, told the Globe he, too, has had his share of troubles with the car, even though he remains fond of the luxury vehicle.

The Globe verified that Pinnock’s Lexus LS400 is Boddaert’s old car through its vehicle identification number, using documents filed with Boddaert’s complaints to the NHTSA, Registry of Motor Vehicle records, and vehicle history reports. These documents show the Lexus was manufactured and shipped to a Massachusetts dealer in March 1999, leased in New Hampshire, then purchased by Boddaert. In 2003, Pinnock bought it from McGee Cars in Hanover.

He first spotted the silver sedan while flipping through an auto shopper’s guide at the supermarket where he works nights, stocking shelves. Its immaculate, gray leather interior and a smooth test drive persuaded him to buy the car.

Pinnock soon discovered that the car’s engine revved often, sometimes accompanied by a burst of speed. His family teased him about it frequently.

“Why is the car so powerful?’’ his wife wondered.

“Dad, why is your car so fast?’’ his son asked.

“Why is your car always taking off?’’ his cousin queried.

“My engine is powerful,’’ the 39-year-old from Mattapan would answer time and again. “My engine is powerful.’’

Still, to be safe, he advised his wife and son to be ready to brake at any time when driving the car. The precaution wasn’t always successful. At least twice, the car has been in fender-benders that Pinnock now questions.

One of the accidents, he said, occurred several years ago, when he parked at a gas station minimart to make a quick purchase. When he tried to ease the car from its spot, Pinnock said, it “took off’’ and hit the front end of a Mercedes-Benz, damaging that car’s grill.

Though Pinnock doesn’t remember the exact date of the accident, there is a report from the Boston Police Department that describes a similar incident in July 2005. Pinnock’s car was seen “backing into the front end of the victim’s M/V [motor vehicle]’’ — a brown 1997 Mercedes — at Norfolk and Morton streets in Mattapan, according to the report. There is an Exxon Mobil gas station at that intersection.

A second accident occurred, Pinnock said, as he was coming home from a soccer game at a park near his house. The car accelerated, he said, and rolled over a bicycle in the road. Insurance records from 2008 verify the “single vehicle collision with object.’’

Now that he knows more about his car’s previous life, Pinnock says he is worried about driving it and plans to ask a Lexus dealer to inspect the vehicle. If they can assure him the car is without fault, he’ll keep it.

“I still love the car,’’ he said last week, “but the problem is, I don’t want to carry my kids in there now, knowing this car is dangerous. It’s kind of scary.’’

In the past decade, at least 3,306 Toyota and Lexus drivers nationwide — including 176 in Massachusetts — have reported instances of sudden acceleration, according to the latest numbers from Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a Rehoboth firm that studies safety issues for attorneys and plaintiffs in civil complaints, government agencies, and other clients. Several dozen deaths also have been attributed to alleged acceleration-related accidents, according to data from Safety Research.

The recent recalls have prompted Congress to scrutinize the way the NHTSA and Toyota have handled reports of unintended acceleration in cars and trucks from the world’s largest automaker.

“It shouldn’t take both a media frenzy and a congressional hearing to get grave automotive problems taken seriously,’’ US Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, said in an e-mailed statement. During a hearing last month, Markey questioned US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the way the traffic safety agency handled Boddaert’s case.

“I will continue to do all that I can to ensure that the causes of all incidents of unexplained sudden acceleration are identified and remedied, that any legislative remedies needed to prevent this from happening again are taken and that all affected vehicles are properly fixed,’’ Markey said.

Peter Boddaert, the original owner of the car, died last year at age 88. His son, Jack, said he’s hoping the scrutiny that Toyota is now under will lead to some sort of resolution for his family

“I think it would be very nice,’’ said Jack Boddaert, “if Lexus were to come back to us and say, ‘We are sorry, is there something we can do?’ ’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.

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