Tire Threat: The Road to Recall
Ford, Firestone Face Mounting Concerns Over Safety, Accusations From Each Other
By TIMOTHY AEPPEL and MARC LIFSHER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. continued their
public feuding Wednesday, even as safety concerns mounted
for both companies' products.
Ford's popular Explorer sport-utility vehicle came under
scrutiny in Venezuela, as that South American country's
consumer-protection agency said it is asking that the vehicle
be banned from sale there following accidents in which the
Explorer rolled over. However, it was unclear whether the
Venezuelan government would take such an action.
Meanwhile, Ford's and Firestone's extraordinary exchange of
accusations in recent days has left some consumers in the
U.S. wary of both companies' products. The House Commerce
Committee, which investigated Firestone's recall of 6.5
million tires last summer, has said it soon will conduct a
fresh round of hearings as new safety concerns emerge about
the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires.
Ford announced on Tuesday it would spend as much as $3
billion to replace between 10 million and 13 million Firestone
tires that weren't included in last summer's recall. Ford said
its move was prompted by new data showing higher than
normal problems of tread separations in the nonrecalled
tires. On Monday, Firestone said it would no longer do
business with Ford in North America, Central America and
South America, saying the auto maker was ignoring safety
issues with its Explorer. Firestone cited its own data that
show the Explorer experiencing more rollovers than the Ford
Ranger pickup equipped with the same tires.
However, Firestone's parent, Bridgestone Corp. of Japan,
apparently sought to separate itself from the fracas between
its U.S. unit and the auto maker. On Tuesday, Bridgestone
Chief Executive Shigeo Watanabe wrote in a letter to Ford
CEO Jacques Nasser, "Bridgestone group has respected Ford
Motor group as one of the most important customers, and
would like to emphasize that the decision [Firestone] has
made is only for the business in the Americas. I strongly wish
that we could and will be the best supplier for Ford Motor
group in the rest of the world." The letter was released by
Firestone confirmed that its CEO, John Lampe, didn't see the
letter before it was sent. "It's not surprising" that Mr. Lampe
didn't see it, said Jill Bratina, a Firestone spokeswoman.
"Bridgestone Japan had indicated to us that they would
continue relationships with Ford elsewhere."
The uproar is spooking consumers. Patricia McLean, in La
Canada, Calif., says she regrets owning a 2000 Ford Explorer
"Eddie Bauer" edition with 16-inch Wilderness tires. The
62-year-old retired secretary was relieved last summer to
learn her tires were supposedly the good ones. "Now they're
blaming the car malfunctioning and the tires both," she says,
"so mainly, I'm afraid."
Mrs. McLean says she and her family may cancel an August
vacation to Washington state, as she now fears driving her
Explorer such long distances. She said she called a Ford
dealer on Tuesday but was told there was no information
about how the tire replacement would proceed.
Firestone is going all-out to turn the focus of the tire
controversy away from its tires and onto Ford's Explorer,
which Firestone claims has inherent stability problems.
Firestone's campaign included sending to the media a news
clipping of a recent fatal accident in Florida involving an
Explorer equipped with non-Firestone tires that rolled over.
Ford spokesman Jason Vines said, "We'll of course look into
something like this [accident] in this environment," but he
insisted too little is known about the nature of the accident
to draw conclusions.
Wednesday, Firestone also presented members of Congress
with new data that it says indicate the Ford Explorer is twice
as likely to roll over in a tire-related accident when compared
to all other SUVs. Firestone said it hired a consulting firm to
sift state accident reports in Florida and Texas and develop
But Ford angrily dismissed the data and questioned the
methodology. Ford's Mr. Vines called the information "bogus
and misleading" and said the company isn't going to get
involved in responding to a "chart a day" from Firestone. The
conclusions contradict Ford's own analysis of Explorer
rollovers based on National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration data, which show the Explorer's rate of
rollover fatalities to be lower than that of other SUVs.
In Venezuela, Samuel Ruh Rios, director of the consumer
agency, the Institute for the Defense and Education of
Consumers and Users, or Indecu, is "working on a request to
the attorney general to prohibit the sale of Explorers in
Venezuela" because of technical problems with the vehicle
that makes it roll over, a spokeswoman for the agency,
Joseva Rodriguez, said.
The agency last summer was deeply involved in investigating
a series of fatal accidents involving Ford Explorers with
Firestone tires that were linked to at least 47 traffic
A spokesman for Venezuela's attorney general's office, which
would have to approve the request, said he wasn't aware of
the pending request. Lawyers in Caracas said it would be
very difficult to impose and enforce such a broad ban.
Mr. Vines said Ford has gotten no official notification of such
a move in Venezuela. "This is wild speculation," he said. Ford
Venezuela spokesman Ricardo Tinoco said he has yet to
speak to Indecu or the attorney general's office. "We feel
really confident that we have all the technical backing to
support the integrity of the vehicle," Mr. Tinoco said.
While Firestone wages a public battle with Ford, it also is
fighting to save its Firestone brand name. "But when the
world's second-largest auto manufacturer gives a vote of no
confidence, what is the average consumer going to think?"
said Al Ries, with marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries in
Meanwhile, General Motors Corp. said it still plans to carry
out a decision it made earlier this year to shift away from
Firestone brand tires in the next model year, substituting
Bridgestone brand tires instead. "There was some concern
expressed by our customers in the wake of the recall last
year," said a GM spokesman. GM uses Firestone tires on
about 14 model lines.
-- Joseph B. White contributed to this article.
Write to Timothy Aeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org and
Marc Lifsher at email@example.com