Ford Will Recall 47,000 Redesigned SUVs To Replace Tires Damaged During Assembly
Car Maker May Also Move to Replace More Firestone Tires on Older Explorers
By JOSEPH B. WHITE, TIMOTHY AEPPEL and CLAIRE ANSBERRY
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The controversy over Ford Explorers and their tires is about to
Ford Motor Co. plans to recall about 47,000 of its redesigned
2002 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer sport-utility
vehicles to replace tires damaged during assembly, a
company official said. An announcement could come as soon
At the same time, the auto maker is preparing for a broader
action, possibly this week, to replace millions more Firestone
tires mounted on older Explorers and other vehicles.
Firestone last summer recalled 6.5 million tires, mounted as
standard equipment on Explorers and other Ford trucks, after
tire-tread failures were linked to hundreds of accidents, 174
deaths and 700 injuries in the U.S. alone.
Ford has a lot riding on how the latest
chapter in the tire controversy plays out.
Ford is trying to crank up sales of its
2002 Explorer four-door SUV, recently
slapping on new sales incentives. The
new Explorer is wider and lower than the
old model, changes made to improve the
vehicle's stability. And new Explorers are
being shipped mainly with Goodyear and
Michelin tires, instead of the Firestones
that were standard equipment through
last year's model. But the planned recall
of 2002 models and a fresh round of bad
publicity about Firestone tires on older
Explorers is the last thing Ford and its
Ford notified federal regulators over the
weekend that it would recall the 2002
models, all assembled at Ford's
Louisville, Ky., plant through April 27,
because about 7% of them could have
horizontal cuts in the treads
inadvertently made by a metal edge in
the plant's vehicle conveyor system. A
Ford spokesman said the tires, primarily Michelin or Goodyear
brands, may have four- to eight-inch cuts about a half-inch
deep on the right-side tires. While the tires should be safe in
the short term, the cuts could cause long-term problems.
Ford's actions come in the midst of an escalating row with
tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. over whether Firestone
should significantly widen last summer's recall, one of the
largest tire recalls ever. The National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration continues to investigate whether other
Firestone tires that weren't part of the recall are unsafe.
Even as that probe continues, Ford likely will act in a matter
of days to initiate replacement of all Firestone Wilderness
tires sold on previous-generation Explorers and certain other
models, according to people familiar with the situation. As
many as 16 million Wilderness tires could be affected. Ford
officials last week shared their analysis of Firestone's claims
data with NHTSA and have begun lining up replacement tires
from other manufacturers, people knowledgeable about the
Officially, Ford says only that it is working closely with
NHTSA on its continuing review of 44 million Firestone tires.
Ford officials have told regulators they are concerned by
Firestone claims data, arising from customer warranty claims,
that show that unrecalled Wilderness tires have
tread-separation rates several times higher than Goodyear
tires used on the same vehicles, though still far less than the
tread-separation claims rates for tires covered by last
The Wilderness and ATX tires recalled last year had
tread-separation claims rates as high as 241 per million,
compared to three to five per million for Goodyears, according
to Ford. It couldn't immediately be determined what the
separation rates were for the unrecalled Wilderness tires on
Other tire makers say they are gearing up to supply Ford with
tires that would be needed in an expanded recall. The
industry was caught by surprise by last summer's recall and
had to scramble to supply replacement tires. This time, the
biggest tire makers, including Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
and France's Groupe Michelin, both have the extra molds
needed to supply replacement tires, and extra capacity freed
by the market slowdown.
At least one big tire company, which didn't want to be
named, has even developed contingency plans for supplying
all types of tires Ford currently buys from Firestone, not just
Explorer tires. While extreme, the action still reflects industry
perceptions of the evolving battle between Ford and
Goodyear is focusing on supplying tires for the Explorer that
weren't subject to last year's recall. "We can start delivering
to them in two or three days," said a Goodyear official
familiar with the planning.
Michael Fanning, a spokesman for Groupe Michelin, said:
"Certainly we are aware of Firestone [applications] on Ford
vehicles, and if a recall is announced we'll do all we can to
help consumers who may be affected."
Ford's urgency can be linked to several factors. Summer is
approaching, and there is evidence tire failures occur more
often in warm weather. The move also puts the focus on
Firestone at a time when Ford is sensing more heat on
questions about older Explorers' safety. In Venezuela, where
Firestone-equipped Explorers were implicated last year in
dozens of deaths, there have been recent reports of new
accidents involving rollovers on Explorers equipped with
non-Firestone tires. Also, a high-profile injury lawsuit against
Ford and Firestone is coming to trial in June in Hidalgo
County State Court in Texas.
Ford says it doesn't believe the latest accidents in Venezuela
are related to the Explorer's design and that it isn't clear
what were the causes of the accidents.
But Ford's push for a wider Firestone recall, which contradicts
months of assurances from both companies that all the
unsafe tires were captured in the previous action, is drawing
a furious counterattack from Bridgestone/Firestone officials.
After last year's damaging recall, Bridgestone/Firestone, a
unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., is struggling to salvage the
storied Firestone brand in the U.S. and has launched a major
marketing effort to win back consumers. Now, the tire maker
is stepping up efforts to focus regulators and the media on
questions about the safety of the older Explorer itself.
Bridgestone/Firestone points to data that Explorers have
seven to 10 times the rate of tread-separation claims
involving Firestone Wilderness and ATX tires similar to those
recalled as do Ford Ranger pickup trucks riding on the same
tires. Firestone officials have said for months that failures of
the previously recalled tires result from a combination of
factors, including the Explorer's weight, the way that weight
is distributed to the rear axle, and the SUV's higher center of
Ford officials dispute that interpretation, saying Goodyear
tires installed on Explorers have resulted in a negligible
number of tread-failure claims compared with the Firestone
Ford and Firestone officials are expected to meet early this
week to discuss the controversy, and tensions are expected
to be high. John Lampe, Bridgestone/Firestone's chairman
and chief executive, on Friday fired off a letter to Ford Chief
Executive Jacques Nasser stating that he was "outraged" by a
story in Friday's New York Times that reported Ford's
concerns that a wider recall could be necessary.
"Let me state categorically -- tires supplied to Ford Motor Co.
and other customers are safe, and the tires are not defective.
As we have said since last August, the role of the vehicle
must be taken into account," Mr. Lampe wrote.
Wall Street on Friday took a dim view of the rekindling of the
Ford-Firestone controversy. At 4 p.m. in New York Stock
Exchange composite trading, Ford shares were down 43 cents
"Ford has had this image as a flight to quality: the best
margins, the best brands and the best balance sheet," said
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter analyst Stephen Girsky. "If they
are not careful this could unravel very quickly."
-- Stephen Power contributed to this article.
Write to Joseph B. White at email@example.com, Clare
Ansberry at firstname.lastname@example.org and Timothy Aeppel at
The Tire Saga
Late 1998 Ford learns of problems with Firestone tires
suddenly failing on Explorer sport-utility vehicles in
1999 Ford replaces Firestone tires on Ford vehicles in
Persian Gulf countries after reports of tread failures.
May 2, 2000 Federal highway safety regulators
announce they are formally investigating complaints that
as many as 47 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and
Wilderness tires could be defective.
Aug. 9, 2000 Following reports of 46 deaths linked to
sudden failures of its tires, Bridgestone/ Firestone
announces it is recalling 6.5 million Firestone ATX and
ATX II p235/75R15 tires made since 1991, and all
15-inch Wilderness tires made at Decatur, Ill., plant.
Most of the tires are mounted on Ford Explorer
sport-utility vehicles. Ford and Firestone officials say
there are no unusual defect trends affecting 16-inch
tires. Worried customers flood Firestone and Ford
Aug. 30, 2000 Federal regulators recommend that
Bridgestone/Firestone expand the recall to include an
additonal 1.4 million tires. The company refuses. NHTSA
recommends consumers replace the tires.
Aug. 31, 2000 NHTSA seeks information from State
Farm Insurance on possible problems with 16-inch
Sept. 12, 2000 Top Bridgestone/Firestone officials
admit the company made "bad tires" and blamed the
design and manufacturing flaws for problems with the
Sept. 2000 Ford and Firestone executives testify before
a congressional committee, defending their handling of
the crisis but criticizing each other.
Oct. 1, 2000 Federal regulators say they are
investigating another brand of Firestone tires, Steeltex,
for tread- separation defects.
Dec. 18, 2000 A Firestone study cites the weight of the
Explorer and the relatively low 26 psi recommended tire
pressure as a possible factor in crashes.
Jan. 8, 2001 Ford and Firestone settle high-profile
Texas case, agreeing to undisclosed compensation for a
woman paralyzed in an Explorer rollover crash.
April 2001 Ford launches redesigned 2002 Explorer,
most of them equipped with Goodyear or Michelin tires.