May 29, 2001


Why Couldn't This Marriage Be Saved?

By Brock Yates, editor at large of Car and Driver magazine.

As the war between Firestone and Ford escalates to a point where the storied Hatfield-McCoy feud begins to resemble an episode of "Father Knows Best," several obvious winners and losers emerge. Sure winners include the trial lawyers handling the plethora of damage suits against both companies; the network newscasters who will predictably fan hysteria about the highway predators known as sport utility vehicles; and the safety lobby, which delights in any anticar news, no matter how murky and ill-focused.

The losers are obviously the combatants, neither of which will survive this imbroglio unscathed, regardless of how effectively their spinmeisters and legal gunslingers defend their respective positions.


But one mystery nags: Why now? What prompted Ford to revive the issue after the sound and fury of last summer's headlines about Ford Explorers and Firestone Wilderness AT radials had been all but forgotten?

It was Firestone, of course, that annulled the nearly century-old marriage to Ford, but only after the Nashville-based division of Japanese rubber giant Bridgestone learned that Ford was planning a massive recall of up to 13 million Firestone tires. Ford reacted by quickly implementing its massive, $3 billion replacement plan and the rift was complete.

Despite the transformation of Firestone to a Japanese satrapy in 1988, the links between the two brands remained one of the strongest in American industrial history. Henry Ford Sr. and Harvey S. Firestone, the two founders, were close friends even before their respective companies rose to power in the first decade of the 20th century. For nearly 75 years Firestone was the exclusive tire supplier to all Ford automotive products. Today, the connection is maintained through the marriage of William C. Ford Jr., the current chairman of Ford and a great-grandson of the automotive pioneer, to a great-granddaughter of Mr. Firestone.

But following the lashing both firms took in the press during the rollover controversy in 2000, internal pressures rose to intolerable levels on both sides. Adding to the unpleasantness was the chilly relationship between Ford CEO Jacques Nasser and newly appointed Firestone Chairman and CEO John T. Lampe.

But again, why now?

With a gag order in place at the Indianapolis federal court where more than 200 individual and class action suits stemming from the fatal rollovers of last year are being heard, news from that source is non-existent. Ford is now in the marketplace with a new model of the Explorer, complete with an independent rear suspension that seemingly cures any flaws in the earlier models that might have contributed to the crashes. A new administration is in place in Washington, following a woolly and acrimonious election that drove the rollover stories off the front pages. The American public, with the traditional attention span of a newt, has long forgotten the entire Ford/Firestone contretemps.

Yet Ford fired another shot and the entire, ugly story is back in the headlines.

There must be more to the story than Ford CEO Jacques Nasser's rather feeble explanation that his company had lost confidence in Firestone products. This was quickly followed, after all, by counter-statements from General Motors and Nissan that they detect no problems with Firestone tires and will continue to source them as original equipment.

And freed of its fealty to Ford, Firestone's guns are blazing with accusations that the rollover problems stem not from flawed tires but from suspension quirks in the Explorers. They support their claim with news from Venezuela that Explorers are tipping over there at an unseemly rate while equipped with Goodyears and other brands.

Firestone is also pounding home the fact that the failures involved no more than 80 of the estimated 50 million Wilderness tires that have been on the road. That means that less than 0.02% of Wilderness tires shredded in rollovers, a number that's statistically meaningless.

Moreover, 30 of the tires examined by the company after fatal rollovers were either punctured, road damaged or inflated at dangerously low levels.

As this blame game escalates, the mystery of Ford's decision to re-open Pandora's box deepens.

Is there a skeleton lurking in a closet that prompted Mr. Nasser to announce the recall as a preemptory strike? Does a whistleblower inside Ford possess potentially damaging data? Is the Indianapolis courthouse to be the source of damning anti-Explorer evidence? Or will the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation due later this year produce revelations that focus the blame not on the tires but on the automobiles?

Perhaps Mr. Nasser's concerns over the long-term reliability and safety of 13 million Wilderness Firestones is firmly grounded and completely sincere. He is widely respected in the automobile industry for his candor and his incisive executive style and it is difficult to believe that he would send a $3 billion shock wave through his company's financial structure without firm grounding in fact.

But nothing will be solved -- and the reputations of two of America's most fabled brands will remain under a cloud -- until specific, impartial analysis of the crashes that took 174 lives is made public.

What must be made public is such crash data as the age and condition of the vehicles involved; the age, pressure and condition of the failed tires; the speed of the vehicles; the gross weight of the vehicles and its on-board distribution; the ambient outside temperatures; the age and physical condition of the drivers; the road conditions and other hard engineering facts.

We know that a majority of the accidents occurred in hot climates. About 85% of the failures involved the left-rear tires. Almost all the rollovers happened after the vehicles left the pavement. Speeds were generally over 60 miles per hour. Tests by Car and Driver magazine prove that catastrophic tire blowouts will not cause an Explorer or any other passenger vehicle to automatically careen out of control. Some element of driver error is a factor -- although that will be difficult to prove during the passionate heat of battle in the Indianapolis courtroom.

Mr. Nasser and his venerable company have now pulled the trigger in what promises to be a long and ugly shoot-out. The true story of this bizarre battle may never be revealed, much less fully understood.

What we do know is that years may pass before either Ford or Firestone regains the full and complete confidence of the American public. And for two otherwise excellent companies with long and honored traditions, that is a sad prospect indeed.