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
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
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
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
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
So far three rollover suits involving the Explorer have gone to trial.
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 email@example.com