By TIMOTHY AEPPEL and CLARE ANSBERRY
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said it didn't carry out a plan to replace
problem tires on Ford Explorers in Venezuela last spring because of
suspension problems with the Ford vehicle.
Without a change in suspension,
Bridgestone/Firestone contended that the
Explorer would continue to experience deadly
rollovers. Jorge A. Gonzalez, president of
Bridgestone/Firestone's Venezuelan operations,
said in a memo dated May 9 and describing a meeting with Ford Motor
Co.'s representatives in Venezuela that "we know for a fact that the
vehicle may roll over with any tire brand."
Ford was pressing Firestone, owned by Japan's Bridgestone Corp., to
replace tires supplied on Explorers sold in that South American country.
The tires had suffered from a high rate of tread separations.
Venezuela's attorney general is investigating both Ford and Firestone in
connection with 47 deaths linked to tire failures on Ford Explorers.
In the memo, Mr. Gonzalez said replacing the tires, without also
correcting the Explorer's suspension, "would put in jeopardy the
Bridgestone brand in Venezuela."
Ford had made some changes in Venezuelan Explorers' suspension in
the 1999 model year, adding stiffer shocks. In addition, Ford was
offering the same suspension change to owners of older vehicles, but
only if requested by the owner.
Firestone wanted Ford to make suspension changes on all of its
Explorers as a condition to replacing the Firestone tires. Ford balked at
that condition. "We said 'No,' " said Ford's Jon Harmon. Ford insists the
changes to the suspension had nothing to do with the tire problems
and didn't want to link the two issues.
Rather, Ford said it changed the suspension because of "customer
preference and driving conditions" in Venezuela, where high-speed
driving on rough roads is commonplace. A stiffer suspension would
provide more support on rough roads at a higher speed but a harsher
ride on smooth roads. Ford subsequently replaced the Firestone tires
with ones made by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
Ana Cecilia Colmenarez, manager of legal affairs for Firestone's
Venezuelan operation, also wrote a summary of the Ford meeting that
was released by congressional investigators. In her note, Ms.
Colmenarez makes it clear the two sides were already battling to avoid
legal liability. She wrote that Firestone made it clear "that in our opinion,
the problem their Explorers were confronting in Venezuela resided in
their suspension system and therefore any liability should be placed in"
Ford, not Firestone.
Separately, a group of plaintiffs attorneys is asking a U.S. District Court
judge to expand the recall to include all Wilderness, ATX and ATX tires,
regardless of size or origin. At this point, the recall is limited to 15-inch
Wilderness AT tires produced at Firestone's Decatur, Ill., plant, and all
15-inch ATX, ATX II tires. A hearing on the move is set for Oct. 16.
-- Norihiko Shirouzu contributed to this article.
Write to Timothy Aeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org and Clare
Ansberry at email@example.com