One little guy lays siege to a big, and shady, operation.
When Curt Scott sees weeping and gnashing of teeth, he doesn't turn away, and he won't let me turn away either. He's turned my desk chair into a spectator seat by giving my name and address to a long list of frustrated, angry customers of Classic Motor Carriages, a high-pressure telemarketer of build-it-yourself replica Cobras, MG TDs, Porsche Speedsters, and '34 Fords. The letters these people write are heart breakers.
The top one on my stack comes from James Kania of Schaumburg, Illinois. He says he ordered a '34 Ford after a series of calls from CMC phone salesmen. The first CMC salesman told him about a special anniversary sale-over $7000 would be lopped off the list price-that was about to end. Kania says the salesman called twice more that day, reminding that the offer "is good for only a few more days." Each time Kania put him off, saying he had to discuss it with his wife.
Next day, Kania says, a second CMC salesman called and offered to sweeten the deal-$1875 in free options - if Kania got in his $3500 deposit right away. When Kania asked for more time, the salesman said he wouldn't cash the check "till you decide fully." Then he tossed in another sweetener-20 percent off all further options. At that point, Kania agreed to buy and the salesman arranged for FedEx to pick up the check at CMC expense.
Three days later, Kania says, CMC's finance officer, Ken Kaufman, called to say the kit wouldn't go into production until they had Kania's payment in full, another $6845. Kania told him he didn't have that much money in the account. He remembers Kaufman replying, "No problem. This check and your first check will be held till you call me back." Again, CMC sent FedEx to pick up Kania's check. But three days later, Kania's bank notified him that CMC had sought payment on both checks. Adding salt to this wound, CMC had the nerve to charge Kania a $15 penalty because the second check bounced.
Kania says Kaufman promised delivery in four to six weeks, with a $500 charge for insurance and shipping. After he didn't hear from CMC for two months, Kania began calling them. For seven days, no one would take his calls, and no one returned them. When finally his call was taken, he was told to call again in a week. More than three months after payment in full, a CMC employee identifying herself as Joyce Howell called to say the kit would soon be shipped by MCI Express, a trucking firm that she assured Kania had all the necessary equipment to unload the heavy crate, and Kania should have a cashier's check ready for $1716.
Kania protested, saying that Kaufman promised the shipping charge would be $500. Kania says Howell replied, "That’s why he is no longer with the firm; he's been quoting low shipping charges." When Kania proposed driving the 1400 miles to Miami to pick up the crate himself, Howell told him there would be a $250 loading charge for that.
Reluctantly, Kania agreed to pay the $1716 charge. Nearly four months after full payment, an MCI Express truck arrived at Kania's driveway. It did not have the promised unloading equipment, so Kania had to hire help for $120.
Upon uncrating, he found 74 items missing. On the packing slip, the parts were listed as back-ordered, with a note explaining that a CMC customer-service rep would call within three to five days. But two weeks went by, and still no call, Kania says. He phoned CMC 21 times in the next month, he says, but no one called back. When he finally reached CMC's Consumer Affairs Supervisor, Rich Goethel, he says Goethel hung up on him. The next month he called CMC every day. Parts arrived sporadically, but four months after the kit was delivered, Kania was still 35 items short.
Kania didn't realize he was just one of hundreds of angry CMC customers until he came across an editorial in The Complete Guide to Specialty Cars, a biannual kit-car buyers guide published by Crown Publishing Company, a one-man operation owned by Curt Scott. The editorial had been written by Scott and described his own experience with CMC. After getting complaints from his readers, he'd decided to investigate. Posing as a potential customer and using the alias of "Craig Stott," he called CMC's 800-number. A salesman mailed a brochure and followed up with several phone calls.
"In at least six instances," Scott wrote in his publication, "in response to my questions regarding (1) construction quality; (2) getting my deposit back if I changed my mind; and (3) shipping charges, [the salesman's] stock response each time began with 'We're federally regulated. You're protected.' At one point he even stated that `Federal law prohibits him from quoting shipping charges."'
When the salesman called a third time, "Stott" said he'd heard everyone was offered the same special deal if they acted fast. Click. The salesman hung up.
Scott's editorial continued: "Within 90 minutes after [the salesman] hung up on me, my phone rang again. A strangely (perhaps falsely) accented voice asked me if I am 'Mr. Craig Stott.' Since this was my special alias, I assumed that this was a go-for-broke follow-up call to close the sale. Wrong. Instead, the caller said he was 'an investigative officer with the phone company,' and that he was 'trying to determine if someone had been illegally billing long-distance calls to my telephone, and would I please read him my phone credit card number?'
"In other words, this Was some cretin attempting to obtain my Pac Bell card number for criminal purposes. This occurred within ninety minutes after [the salesman] had hung up on me-and I've never used this (or any other) alias before."
When asked to comment, CMC President Benedict Harrington said, "I don't believe it occurred."
Scott said he "didn't start out to be a consumer crusader. This thing got bigger than I am, and I can't let go of it."
He described a conversation with a couple in Indiana. "They ordered a '34 Ford. Fifty, 60 percent of the parts were missing. Nine months later, parts would trickle in. The husband worked days, so he called early and she called while he was gone, leaving something like 125 phone messages over a 40-day period. Nobody ever called back. As she was telling the story, she burst into tears; she was sobbing, unable to talk, so anguished. If there was one thing that turned my lights on, it was that conversation.
"They give a very black eye to every aspect of the specialty-car industry," Scott says of CMC.
Scott said it was complaints like these that led him in 1990 to stop accepting CMC advertising in his magazine, a costly step because CMC has been the largest advertiser in the kit-car business. In 1991, he wrote an editorial warning of shoddy business practices without identifying CMC. Starting in 1992, he's been on a crusade, even exposing aliases that he says are used by CMC salesmen. He's bombarded the Florida Attorney General's office with complaints, shown postal authorities what he says is evidence of fraud, and even gone to the FBI.
For years, CMC's business practices have continued despite the usual consumer-protection mechanisms. Without admitting guilt, CMC signed agreements with the Florida attorney general in 1985 and in 1992 promising, both times, not to misrepresent the completeness of the kits and the time and skill required to assemble them. CMC also promised not to pressure purchasers by warning of immediate price increases when such was not the case, and not to say that deposits were refundable when they weren't.
Still, complaints against CMC continued. And the assistant attorney general assigned to the case, Rhonda Lapin, seemed to pooh-pooh the complaints. She told the South Florida Business Journal in June 1993: "The kit car buyer seems to be a different breed of customer. They really want these cars, but some of them can't even put them together." Scott says he had a list of customers who tried to complain to Lapin's office and were discouraged from doing so. Some of them were referred to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Others say that before doing business with CMC, they inquired of the Attorney General's office about the company's business history, and were told that there had been some complaints but that all charges against CMC had been dropped.
When Scott kept hearing new customers repeating the same old stories and saw the state doing nothing, he then began writing letters directly to Governor Lawton Chiles. He also urged Miami consumer activist Stuart Rado to take up the case, which Rado has done with vigor.
Finally, the wheels of justice are clanking. The attorney general is suing Classic Motor Carriages for deceptive trade practices and civil theft. The suit charges, among other things, that the company routinely ships only part of a kit while placing the remaining parts on back order. "Consumers were unable to obtain refunds and their complaints were largely ignored," said Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.
After initiating the state's suit against CMC, Lapin resigned. A special assistant attorney general, Herbert Stettin, has been brought in to lead the case. Mona Fandel, assistant attorney general, told me that the state now has more than 1000 customer complaints against CMC and will seek full restitution for them.
For a while, it appeared that CMC was trying to bail out of its problems in Florida. An attempt to sell CMC's assets to a Delaware shell corporation, however, has been blocked by the attorney general until the court approves a plan to satisfy the customers.
CMC President Harrington concedes that “Things did occur, and we continue to try to fix them."
Meanwhile, CMC filed suit in Miami federal court, alleging, among many charges, defamation by Scott. Also named in the suit are consumer activist Rado, the attorney general of North Dakota, and two persons in that office who have been pursuing complaints against CMC by residents of the state. One of those persons, Tom Engelhardt, director of the state's Consumer Protection Division, says, "Basically, they allege that we're involved in some kind of conspiracy with Curt Scott and Stuart Rado to put them [CMC] out of business. As a matter of fact, [we're doing] what we are supposed to do, and that is to investigate allegations of fraud in the marketplace."
In its 17 years of business, CMC apparently never encountered anyone like Curt Scott. "He thinks everything should be black and white," says Peter Portante of Era Replica Automobiles, a leading maker of Cobra kits. "He's honest as can be. I'm surprised he can make a living."
"I'm going to keep fighting this until my last breath," Scott tells me. As he talks, though, I hear the breaths getting shallower. "The court gave me 60 days to hire counsel in Miami, but I can't afford that. I may have to sustain a default judgment against my company and bankrupt the company," he says. "I'd hate for CMC to say, 'Scott's been writing all this stuff for years and now we've got a judgment against him.' It'd be a default judgment against my company, not against anything I've said or written."
For five years, the rest of the motoring press-me included-looked away while Curt Scott manned this Alamo alone. It's late, but not too late to get him out alive. My check to "Curt Scott's Legal Fund" has already gone to: P.O. Box 1337, Santa Clarita, CA 91386