May 24, 2001

                    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
                    Ford officials.

                    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
                    the comparison.

                    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
                    Roswell, Ga.

                    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 and
                    Marc Lifsher at