By TIMOTHY AEPPEL and STEPHEN POWER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- In a new sign of trouble for Bridgestone/Firestone
Corp., federal regulators said they are investigating another brand of
the company's tires used on Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp.
sport-utility vehicles, pickups and vans, amid complaints that they are
blowing out or losing their treads.
The National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration said it had received 169
complaints involving Firestone Steeltex tires.
The complaints included eight crashes, 12
injuries and two fatalities. The agency said it
didn't immediately know the time frame of the complaints.
Separately, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. says it is continuing to develop
and test tires on the expectation that it will snare a portion of the
business to supply Ford's next-generation Explorer sports-utility
vehicles. Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., was the
exclusive supplier to the Explorer for the past three years.
NHTSA described its investigation as a "preliminary evaluation," which
generally the first phase of an official inquiry into safety problems on a
vehicle or vehicle part. If the agency determines the Steeltex tires
warrant further investigation, it will begin an engineering analysis that
could lead regulators to demand a recall. But most preliminary
evaluations don't go that far.
Federal safety agency officials said most of the Firestone Steeltex
complaints occurred at highway speed and allege a blowout, tread
separation or "other major failure." The tires fall into two models: the
R4S and the A/T.
Both are light-truck radial tires. Officials described the R4S as a
"mud-and-snow tire" and the A/T as an all-terrain tire with "an
aggressive tread." Both are available in 15, 16 and 16.5-inch sizes.
NHTSA officials said they hadn't determined how many Steeltex tires are
on the road but said they were installed as original equipment on some
light trucks. The complaints filed with the agency indicate they were
used on Ford F-250 and F-350 pickups, Ford Excursions and GM
Suburbans and G-vans. But officials said there may be other models
upon which the tires were used as original equipment.
Mike Vaughn, a Ford spokesman, said the NHTSA informed the auto
maker about the new investigation late Friday. He said that Ford has put
Steeltex tires on all of the 75,760 Ford Excursions manufactured so far
and on 40% of the company's latest, largest pickups and vans. "We will
cooperate fully with the NHTSA," Mr. Vaughn said. GM spokesman Terry
Rhadigan said GM also will "cooperate fully with the investigation." He
said data on the number of GM vehicles with the tires weren't
NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said the agency's inquiry is "completely
separate" from its investigation of the massive recall announced Aug. 9
by Bridgestone/Firestone. That recall, which included 6.5 million 15-inch,
ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, stemmed from a flurry of
complaints to the agency involving accidents in which the treads
mysteriously peeled off, causing drivers to lose control. In the U.S., 101
deaths have been attributed to accidents involving the recalled tires,
and more than 50 deaths have been linked to the tires overseas. Most
of the recalled tires were installed as original equipment on Ford
"There's a heightened sense of awareness about tire safety," Mr. Tyson
said, adding, "Obviously, as the Firestone investigation showed us,
there were a lot of problems out there that people weren't telling us
Firestone in a statement said NHTSA's preliminary evaluation focuses on
"certain of the company's Steeltex R4S and Steeltex AT light truck
tires." The company pointed out that a preliminary evaluation doesn't
mean NHTSA has found a defect but rather is a process to pinpoint
facts surrounding complaints that have been filed with the safety
agency. Bridgestone/Firestone "has, and will continue to have, a policy
of being open and responsive to NHTSA as well as other government
representatives and agencies," said the company, adding, "We have
been and will continue to work diligently to fulfill these inquiries in a
timely and responsive manner with limited staff and limited resources."
A Firestone spokeswoman reached over the weekend said the company
was continuing to compile information about the Steeltex tires. The
spokeswoman said the company still hadn't compiled answers to basic
questions, such as how many Steeltex tires were produced or in what
plants they were produced.
Ford is expected to announce this week that Goodyear will be offered
along with tires made by France's Groupe Michelin SA, which is expected
to equip the bulk of Explorers when the vehicle is introduced early next
year. Michelin earlier this year announced it was introducing a tire
designed specifically for the SUV market and has planned to supply
some tires for the 2002 Explorer since 1997. That tire, dubbed the
Cross Terrain SUV tire, will go on sale in the replacement market in
With Michelin's head start, Goodyear is moving quickly. "We're taking
off-the-shelf tires, so we have a good history on the performance of
these tires, because they've been in the market," says John Perduyn, a
Goodyear spokesman. "But we'll have to do some tuning, because we
didn't have the opportunity that Michelin had of working with them as
they developed the platform."
Firestone, meanwhile, is still planning to offer its own tires for the
Explorer, at least in the first few months after its introduction. But
whether there are any Firestone tires sold at all on the new vehicle will
depend on dealers and customers, who increasingly are saying they
won't buy an Explorer with Firestone tires.
Michelin is expected to supply the bulk of the tires. Lynn Mann, a
Michelin spokeswoman, says Michelin believes the new Cross Terrain tire
is the first tire of any kind designed especially for SUVs. "It has an
aggressive, truck-like look that complements SUV designs," she says,
adding, "and it has a silica tread compound that enhances wet-grip
Della DiPietro, a Ford spokeswoman, says Ford "is working as quickly as
possible to work out the details of" the program to allow consumers a
choice of tires for the new Explorer. "Until we have all the specifics
worked out, we are not able to give additional details," she adds.
Goodyear supplied about half the tires for the Explorer from 1995 to
1997, when it split the business with Firestone. Winning back a position
on such a high-profile vehicle as the Explorer will help the brand as a
whole. Moreover, Goodyear has stood by Ford in the recent recall
controversy. Ford points to the relatively problem-free record of the
Goodyear tires from the mid-1990s as proof that it is Firestone's tires,
not the Explorer, that is the problem. "The quantities [of tires] here are
small as a percentage of our overall business," says Mr. Perduyn, the
Goodyear spokesman. "But because of the high profile of this, it's
important to us."
Meanwhile, Venezuela pressed local Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone
officials Friday to reach compensation agreements with 104 victims of
accidents involving Ford Explorers equipped with Bridgestone/Firestone
tires. The state consumer agency, Indecu, wants Manuel Casigena,
president of Ford's subsidiary in the country, and Antonio Fernandez,
president of Firestone's subsidiary, to meet the first group of 50 victims
starting Wednesday, agency head Samuel Ruh said. If they can't reach
an agreement, Indecu granted powers by Venezuela's attorney general
will seek to impose fines, Indecu said. A Ford spokesman in Venezuela
wasn't available for comment. "Bridgestone/Firestone has and always
will have a policy of being open and responsive to Indecu," said a
company spokesman. The company said it is sending representatives to
the Wednesday meeting in Venezuela.
-- Norihiko Shirouzu in Detroit contributed to this article.
Write to Timothy Aeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org and Stephen
Power at email@example.com