South Korea mulls a ban on fire-prone BMW cars

The South Korean government is considering banning from the roads any BMW vehicle that has not been subject to a recall safety check after more than 30 incidents in which cars caught fire. Julian Ryall reports.

The South Korean unit of the Munich-based company is struggling to deal with the negative fallout from the engine fire problem.

"Unforeseen fires breaking out in public places like petrol stations and parking lots could lead to bigger accidents, so we are considering banning any BMW that has not undergone safety tests from being driven," said Kim Hyun-mi, the South Korean minister of transport, in an emergency press conference on Wednesday.

The minister called on the company to introduce measures to stop the problem worsening and prevent similar incidents in the future, adding that punishments will be stepped up against any company that fails to deal with a product crisis adequately.

"Companies found guilty of delaying recalls or hiding defects will face severe punishment that makes it difficult for them to sell their products in Korea again," he said.

Read more: South Korea launches probe into BMW car recall after engine fires

On Thursday, however, pictures of two more burning BMW vehicles were posted on social media sites, bringing the total number of such cases to eight in August alone. In total, at least 36 BMW cars have caught fire in South Korea this year, according to media reports.

The driver of one of the cars, a BMW 730Ld that caught fire on the Namhae Highway in South Gyeongsang Province, told the Yonhap news agency that he had pulled over on the hard shoulder and saw smoke coming from the exhaust pipe. As he lifted the bonnet, he saw a spark and the engine caught fire. No one was injured in either incident.

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Examining faults

On July 27, BMW Korea issued a recall notice for more than 45,000 cars. Sixty-one engineers at after-service centers across the country have been working 24-hours a day to solve the problem, the company said, although it is feared that not all BMW models will have been examined for faults before the deadline of August 14 for the company to rectify the problem.

BMW Korea did not respond to requests from DW for a comment, although information on the company web site indicates that the fault lies with a plastic engine manifold component melting at high temperatures.

The company said it has shared the information with the transport ministry "and will cooperate fully with the authorities in the future."

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Public anger

That, however, has not been enough to calm public anger at BMW's handling of the crisis.

On Thursday, a group of 21 BMW car owners filed a legal complaint with police in central Seoul naming six top officials of the South Korean unit of the car manufacturer and its parent company and demanding an investigation into the fires. The complaint named Kim Hyo-joon, head of the firm's South Korean unit, and Johann Ebenbichler, vice president of quality management, said Ha Jong-sun, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

Speaking to the media, Ha said the complaint calls on prosecutors to investigate e-mail correspondence between BMW Korea and its German headquarters for evidence that the company attempted to cover up the defects. The plaintiffs claim the company knew about the problem as early as 2016 but tried to hide the problem, only ordering a recall in July 2018.

Germany's best cult cars

Trabant 601 (1964)

The Trabant was to the East what the VW Beetle was to the West - a vehicle for the masses. It was cheap to produce, with an outer body made of hard plastic. The car's moment in the spotlight came with the fall of the Berlin wall, as citizens of the DDR spilled over the newly open East-West border in their "Trabis." There are still some 33,000 Trabants roaming the streets of Germany today.

Germany's best cult cars

VW Beetle (1938)

There's no stopping this faithful old model. With more than 21 million units having rolled off the production line, the VW Beetle is the most famous car in the world. From 1938 to 2003, its design never strayed far from the original - think "Herbie," or his German movie counterpart "Dudu."

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VW T1 (1950)

The colorful VW Campervan, know as a "Bulli" in Germany, became a symbol of the hippie movement. Volkswagen wasn't initially too pleased about this, but it didn't do their sales any harm. More than 10 million VW buses have been sold since the model's introduction, of which 1.8 million were T1 models. They've also had an impressive film career - although mostly in supporting roles.

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Messerschmitt Cabin Scooter (1953)

With three wheels and an aerodynamic body, it should come as no surprise that Messerschmitt was originally an aircraft manufacturer. After the Second World War, with production at a stand-still, the company agreed to work with engineer Fritz Fend on his "Flitzer" car model. It was a short-lived partnership - in 1956 Messerschmitt went back to aircraft production.

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Mercedes 300 SL (1954)

This car was nicknamed the "Gullwing," thanks to its wing-like doors. The 300 SL Silver Arrows racing car earned Mercedes-Benz a surprise comeback on the motorsport scene. After wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Carrera Panamericana racing events, a street version went into production.

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BMW Isetta (1955)

It may not be speedy, but the BMW Isetta was still a financial success story for BMW between 1955 and 1962. Cheap and practical, this microvehicle with a motorcycle engine was known as a "bubble car." It opened at the front, just like a fridge.

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Goggomobil (1955)

Another microcar with cult status is the Hans Glas "Goggo," named after the owner's grandson. Unlike other mini vehicles that had come before it, the Goggo could hold up to four people - although, given the car's 1.6-meter length, it was a bit of a squeeze. One of the car's key selling points was that it was so compact you only needed a motorcycle license to drive it.

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Porsche 911 (1963)

With more than half a century of production behind it, the 911 is among the longest existing models in automobile history. In all its reincarnations, the trademark Porsche model has retained its most memorable features. With its striking headlights and its steep-sloped rear, the 911 is instantly recognizable.

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Mercedes-Benz 600 (1964)

An in-car telephone, air conditioning and a freezer compartment were just some features of the German luxury sedan of the 60s and 70s. It attracted an endless list of celebrity owners, from the Pope to John Lennon. It was a little too pricey for the German government's liking, but they did rent one for special occasions, such as the 1965 state visit of Queen Elizabeth II.

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Opel Kadett B (1965)

According to a song by German punk band WIZO: "Whether limousine, estate or coupé - the coolest car is a Kadett B." It seems 2.7 million customers agreed, making this one of Opel's most successful models. In the early 70s, Opel used the advertising slogan "Das Auto" for the Kadett B - long before their rivals at Volkswagen recycled the phrase.

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Wartburg 353 (1966)

The Wartburg, which takes its name from a castle in the car's home town of Eisenach, was largely produced for the export market. The cheap vehicles found some success in countries such as Hungary and Great Britain. Back in West Germany, however, demand was low - owning an East German car would have been quite the political statement.

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NSU Ro 80 (1967)

When NSU presented the Ro 80, rival manufacturers were watching closely. The car's twin-rotor Wankel engine, which was named after its inventor Felix Wankel, earned it the title "Car of the Year 1967." Unfortunately the technology wasn't quite ready, and NSU began replacing the motors as a precautionary measure. This unsettled potential customers and the car ultimately flopped.

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Mercedes Benz /8 "Stroke Eight" (1968)

The conservative W 114/115 series sedan was hardly the fastest Mercedes around, with a top speed of 130 km/h. That makes it perhaps all the more impressive that it was not uncommon to find a Stroke Eight with several million kilometers on the clock. The quality of the car earned Mercedes 1.9 million satisfied customers - and the Stroke Eight became a collector's item.

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Opel GT (1968)

"Only flying is better," is how Opel advertised its answer to the American "muscle cars." Sweeping curves, supposedly reminiscent of a Coca-Cola bottle, and pop-up headlights completed the car's unique look. An affordable price tag meant the car also attracted attention in the United States.

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VW Type 181 (1969)

Initially produced for the German army, VW marketed the Type 181 as a multipurpose leisure car for young people. It offered little in the way of comfort, but a retractable roof transformed this austere jeep into a convertible. The Type 181 was warmly received in the US, where it was known simply as "The Thing."

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Opel Manta (1970)

What Opel intended as a middle-class sporty model quickly became a must-have item for young men. Cue countless jokes about Manta drivers and their modest IQs. Film producer Bernd Eichinger paid tribute to the car in his 1991 comedy "Manta Manta," which co-starred a young Til Schweiger.

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VW Golf (1974)

In 1974, VW brought its first Golf model to market, billing it as the successor to the beloved Beetle. For a subcompact car, the Golf was surprisingly sporty and efficient - a big advantage following the 70s oil crisis. The car's success took even VW by surprise, and the convertible model, nicknamed the "Strawberry Basket," became a sought-after cult car.

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Audi quattro (1980)

"Quattro," Italian for four, refers to the car's four-wheel drive element. This unique coupé caused quite a stir upon its release. Four years later, Audi brought out the high-performance Quattro Sport (pictured). Only 220 units were produced, making it a real collector's item. More than 11,000 units of the original version, known as the "Urquattro," were made.

Andrew Salmon, author of "Modern Korea: All that matters," says the company has done itself damage by the way it has failed to respond to the problem.

"In Seoul, BMW cars are known as 'Gangnam Sonatas' – the every man's car that is very popular with the well-to-do because it is an expensive imported brand," Salmon told DW. "BMWs have been a hugely successful brand here, but this has seriously tarnished their name and it will hurt them for some time to come."

Song Young-chae, a professor at the Center for Global Creation and Collaboration at Seoul's Sangmyung University, said people – and not just BMW owners – are angry.

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Fault 'not the problem'

"What would happen if Hyundai or Kia cars were catching fire on the roads in Germany?" Song asked.

"The government would act. The companies would have to do something. BMW has not done enough and there will be serious problems if it is shown that they hid the problem. I don't think the technical fault with the cars is the real problem in this case," he told DW.

"Other companies have problems with their products all the time, so it is something that we have to accept. The problem is the way in which they have responded. BMW has not dealt with this problem in the same way they would have done in Germany and Korean people feel that they have not been honest with is and that they have no respect for their Korean customers," he added.

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