Role of Ford Explorer Design Is Studied In Connection With Firestone Tire Suits
                    September 20, 2000

                    By MILO GEYELIN
                    Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

                    NEW YORK -- Is the Ford Explorer part of the problem?

                    Plaintiffs' lawyers and congressional investigators are increasingly
                    turning their attention to the design of the Explorer itself and the role it
                    might play in the high number of fatal rollovers the vehicles have
                    experienced when equipped with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tires.

                    Documents turned over by Ford Motor Co. to plaintiffs' lawyers suggest
                    that the popular sport-utility vehicle was designed with little safety
                    margin as to how incorrect tire size, tire pressure or even choice of tire
                    tread could increase the Explorer's risk of rolling in an abrupt or
                    emergency turn.

                    For example, the documents show that Ford lowered its recommended
                    tire pressure on the 15-inch Firestone P235 ATX tires to improve the
                    Explorer's stability after engineering simulations showed it failing J-turn
                    emergency-avoidance maneuvers in 1989. The lower tire pressure was
                    considered a critical component of the Explorer's safe handling, enough
                    so that Ford weighed adding a warning sticker inside the vehicle alerting
                    occupants that a tire inflation level of 26 pounds per square inch was
                    "required" to help prevent "loss of control, rollover and serious injury."

                    The warning labels were never added, however. A Ford spokesman said
                    Tuesday that the company made design and suspension modifications
                    in the final months before the Explorer's February 1990 launch that
                    obviated the need. Ford considered and rejected several major design
                    changes, including widening the Explorer by 2 inches to lower its center
                    of gravity. Instead, Ford lowered the vehicle by one-half inch and
                    stiffened its front suspension springs.

                    "The engineering team felt they had achieved their goal of becoming a
                    safety leader, so there was not the need for that warning label," said
                    Ford spokesman Jon Harmon. Nevertheless, Ford's decision to lower the
                    recommended tire pressure on its Explorer tires to 26 pounds per
                    square inch, from 30 pounds per square inch recommended by
                    Firestone, is expected to figure prominently when a fourth
                    congressional hearing over the Firestone tire crisis begins tomorrow in

                    Bridgestone/Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., announced
                    last month that it would recall 6.5 million 15-inch ATX, ATX II and
                    Wilderness tires after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
                    reported a spike in accidents involving the tires, particularly on Ford's
                    Explorer and its light trucks. Many of the tires are P235s sold as original
                    equipment on Ford Explorers or offered as an option to satisfy
                    customer demand for a larger tire on the sport-utility vehicle. The
                    NHTSA said Tuesday that it has now logged 2,226 complaints, more
                    than 400 injuries and 103 deaths stemming from accidents in the last
                    10 years involving tread or belt separation on Firestone tires.

                    Low tire pressure has emerged as a crucial issue. While it may have
                    enhanced the Explorer's stability, low tire pressure can cause high heat
                    levels to build up from friction as the tire's sidewalls and steel belts flex
                    more. That can, in turn, damage the bonds that hold the tires together.

                    Ford has insisted since the recall began that the problem is with
                    Firestone's tires, not the design of the auto maker's best-selling SUV.
                    "This is a tire issue, not a vehicle issue," Ford President and Chief
                    Executive Jacques Nasser testified before the Senate Commerce
                    Committee last week. And Ford's reading of federal rollover fatality
                    statistics supports that view, indicating that Ford Explorers are involved
                    in 26% fewer rollover accidents involving two or more vehicles than all
                    other compact SUVs.

                    But Ford's analysis doesn't break out single-vehicle, or "first-event,"
                    rollover accidents, those in which no other vehicle or obstacle may have
                    caused the accident or contributed to the accident, such as a sudden
                    tread separation. And in cases of tread separation, a Wall Street Journal
                    analysis of the NHTSA data suggests that Ford Explorer products are
                    three times as likely to roll over when treads come apart as other Ford
                    vehicles equipped with the same tire, such as the Ranger line of pickup

                    Ford officials say that, within the population of recalled tires, there are
                    tires that are worse than others and that the bulk of the bad tires went
                    on Explorers. Plaintiffs' lawyers, who so far have had mixed results in
                    lawsuits against Ford over injuries and deaths from Explorer rollovers,
                    are drawing increased attention to internal company documents and
                    test results at Ford in the months before the Explorer first rolled off the
                    assembly line in February 1990. One critical series of tests at Ford's
                    Arizona proving ground in April 1989, 10 months before the Explorer's
                    scheduled launch, "demonstrated a rollover response, established by
                    observing two wheels off the ground and/or outrigger contact, with a
                    number of tire, tire pressure [and] suspension configurations" under
                    heavy loads.

                    Ford engineers had planned the test as their final approval on the
                    Explorer's handling stability before production was to begin. The results
                    showed the Explorer able to execute split-second J-turns at 55 miles
                    per hour when equipped with the smaller Firestone P225 tires inflated at
                    35 pounds per square inch, but not with the larger P235 All Terrain tires
                    Ford wanted as standard equipment on some models.

                    High-performance tires, such as Firestone's Firehawk, also resulted in
                    two-wheel lift during Ford's testing of Explorer prototypes, as did the
                    P235 AS, Firestone's all-season tire. "In an extreme situation, those
                    tires are more likely to stick, as opposed to slide out," said Ford's Mr.
                    Harmon. "And that negatively enhances the vehicle's stability in a very
                    extreme turn."

                    Ford rejected the Firehawk and the All Season tires. It approved the
                    P225 at maximum 35 pounds per square inch pressure, and the P235
                    All Terrain tire at a reduced 26 pounds per square inch. The P235 is part
                    of the current recall. A month later, Ford began production of the new

                    Plaintiffs' lawyers contend that Ford rushed the Explorer to market
                    despite the tire-test warnings. They also contend Ford failed to
                    adequately warn how slight differences in tire type, pressure or tread
                    could increase the risk of rollover, particularly for a light truck being
                    marketed as a station wagon for suburban families.

                    "We believe the documents that have been produced in this litigation
                    reinforce the view that the Explorer, in and of itself, irrespective of the
                    tire, has a stability problem," said Chicago plaintiffs' lawyer Robert
                    Clifford, who is readying an Explorer rollover suit against Ford for trial in
                    Cook County Circuit Court.

                    Mr. Harmon, the Ford spokesman, said the Explorer has proved itself to
                    be safe and stable in "real world" driving conditions and that
                    modifications made in the final months before its production were
                    merely fine-tuning.

                    So far three rollover suits involving the Explorer have gone to trial. Ford
                    won one case and settled the two others under confidentiality
                    agreements before verdicts were reached.

                    Mr. Clifford's suit is scheduled to go to trial early next year.

                    Write to Milo Geyelin at