By TIMOTHY AEPPEL and NORIHIKO SHIROUZU
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Ford Motor Co. plans to equip the bulk of its next-generation Explorer
sport utility vehicles with Michelin tires, abandoning its decade-long
reliance on tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., according to a
person familiar with the situation.
The move comes as controversy surrounding
the massive recall of Firestone tires has driven a
wedge into the century-old relationship between
Ford and Firestone, owned by Japan's
Bridgestone Corp. The government is
investigating 101 deaths over the past decade that are allegedly linked
to Firestone tires mounted mainly on Ford Explorers.
Since the Aug. 9 recall, Ford has asked France's Groupe Michelin SA to
supply as many tires as needed. But Ford wouldn't confirm how much
new business the auto maker plans to give to Michelin. Ford also is
negotiating with other tire makers to supply tires for the 2002 Explorer,
which will become available early in 2001.
Jacques Nasser, Ford's chief executive, said the company plans for the
first time to allow dealers and consumers to choose which brand of tires
they want on the Explorer. He added that Ford also plans to offer a
similar choice on its other vehicles.
"It's a major shift," said Mr. Nasser about the company's decision to let
consumers choose their tires. Asked if there could be no new Explorers
with Firestone tires as a result of the policy, Mr. Nasser, who was
attending the Paris auto show, said only, "The customers will decide."
According to documents unsealed Wednesday in federal court in
Brunswick, Ga. Firestone's adjustment data from the early 1990s
showed that tread separations accounted for close to 60% of all
Firestone's defective tires. The figure for tread separations was even
higher at the company's plant in Wilson, N.C., where tread separations
accounted for an average of 68% of all adjustment data.
The suit was filed by Michael and Kim Van Etten against
Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford relating to the March 1997 death of
their son, Daniel, who died when the Firestone tire on his Explorer
failed. The tire, an ATX tire that is included in the recall, was made at
Firestone's Wilson plant in 1993. "It's important to see how high the
Wilson figures are because all the emphasis has been placed on
Decatur," said Rowe Brogdon, who represented the Van Ettens in the
case, which was settled in August 1999.
Mr. Brodgon was referring to Firestone's plant in Decatur Ill., which has
been blamed for the bulk of the tires included in the recall. "It's not this
plant or that plant. It's the manufacturing processing," he said.
Time to Rotate
Ford announced it will offer customers buying the 2002 Explorer a
choice between brands of tires.
With 15 and 16-inch Firestone Wilderness AT tires
Available early 2001
With 16-inch Firestone tires or Michelin tires
Companies Negotiating to Provide Tires for the 2002 Explorer
Goodyear Tire & Rubber
Continental General Tire
Adjustment data include only reports of defects that are reported to
Firestone dealerships and accepted as defective. Firestone said it
couldn't comment on those documents. "A tread separation is a typical
normal failure for a steel-belted radial. But it's typically a result, not a
cause, whether that's a road hazard, underinflation or an improper
repair," a representative said.
For Firestone, the loss of Ford, its biggest customer, would be a
potentially crushing blow. For now, Firestone is bracing for the imminent
loss of the Explorer business. "Our plans are to do their initial
production [of tires for the Explorer] for the first one or two months,"
said a Firestone spokeswoman. "Then after that, they haven't given us
any indication of what percentage we're going to be or what number of
tires to produce for them."
Lynn Mann, a Michelin spokeswoman, declined to comment on Ford's
plans. "As is our standard policy, any announcement regarding Michelin
brand tires appearing as original equipment on vehicles comes from the
Many Ford dealers, who will begin ordering their first 2002 Explorers in
the next few weeks, said Firestone's image has been tarnished by the
tire recall. "We're going to order everything but Firestone," said Jerry
Reynolds, a Ford dealer in Texas and chairman of the nationwide Ford
Dealer Council. Added Puyallup, Wash., Ford dealer Jerry Korum:
"Customers are scared of Firestone right now."
Ford cast its net widely in its search for tires. Katharina Konowalski,
spokeswoman for Continental General Tire Inc., the U.S. division of
Germany's Continental AG, declined to discuss any specific negotiations
with Ford, but said: "We're having conversations with Ford about
various new business opportunities, which would include the Ford
And Ford began talking to Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. soon after the
recall was announced, though initially the focus was on identifying tires
needed to supply replacements for the recall. "We haven't been given
any business," said Chuck Sinclair, a Goodyear spokesman. "But we're
going at it from the standpoint of moving forward to get technical
approvals to supply that vehicle. We wouldn't be working on it if there
weren't a pretty good chance that we're going to be on that vehicle."
Meanwhile, Firestone's problems continue to mount overseas as well.
Earlier this week, the tire maker learned that Saudi Arabia has banned
the import of all Firestone tires. In a statement, Firestone said "the
scope of this action is uncalled for and extreme." A spokeswoman said
the company has already met with the U.S. trade representative to
express objections to the Saudi ban.
Separately, a congressional subcommittee unanimously approved
legislation that would impose criminal penalties on auto makers that fail
to notify regulators about safety defects. But members of the House
subcommittee on consumer protection couldn't agree on an amendment
that would require the government to test the propensity of vehicles to
-- Sholnn Freeman, Joseph White, Stephen Power and Clare Ansberry
contributed to this article.
Write to Timothy Aeppel at email@example.com and Norihiko
Shirouzu at firstname.lastname@example.org