June 14, 2001

Tire Threat: The Road to Recall

Ford, Firestone Spar Over Data Ahead of House Panel Meeting

Staff Reporters of T HE WALL STREET J OURNAL

In the latest exchange between Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., Ford said Firestone Wilderness AT and ATX tires suffered 167 tread separations on vehicles other than Ford Explorers and said the data call into question Firestone's assertions that its tires perform well on vehicles other than the Explorer.

Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., quickly disputed Ford's analysis of the data that had been supplied by the tire company to the auto maker. Ford didn't make a public announcement of the data, but disclosed them when questioned.

Ford and Firestone are jockeying for advantage in advance of a hearing scheduled for Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose chairman is Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.). Ford executives want to convince lawmakers and regulators that the root cause of hundreds of accidents involving Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorers is defective tires alone. Firestone, since May 21, has countered that the design of the Explorer and other factors controlled by Ford are likely at fault.

Ford spokesman Ken Zino said the auto maker's experts have analyzed Firestone's data on tread-separation incidents involving vehicles made by several other manufacturers. The vehicles were equipped with replacement Firestone tires, Wilderness AT and ATX tires, that were similar to those used on the Explorer, Mr. Zino said. Ford doesn't know exactly how many ATX and Wilderness tires were sold as replacements during the past decade, Mr. Zino said, but Ford believes the tread-failure rate is higher than the rate for other brands.

Ford's analysis of the Firestone data calls "into question in our mind the statements that it's an Explorer problem," he said.

Firestone Wednesday disputed Ford's analysis of the information sifted from the tire maker's claims records. Firestone checked its data and found that out of all of the separations involving other makes of vehicles, only five experienced a rollover, Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina said. On the other hand, Ford vehicles had 149 rollovers.

"Most important, we have said all along that you should be able to pull over after a tread separation and not roll over," says Ms. Bratina.

Separately, Ford officials met with officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is investigating hundreds of cases in which Firestone tires mounted on Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles suddenly lost their treads. The safety agency has said its investigation is focused on the tires, although Bridgestone/Firestone has lobbied to have the agency expand its probe to investigate questions about the Explorer's handling.

Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive John Lampe on Tuesday criticized the methods Ford has used to analyze tread separation and other data supplied by Firestone since last summer, when the tire maker agreed to recall 6.5 million ATX and Wilderness AT tires made at its Decatur, Ill., plant. Mr. Lampe has said the rash of failures of Firestones used on Explorers points to problems with the vehicle and the tire and the interaction of the two.

Write to Joseph B. White at joseph.white@wsj.com and Timothy Aeppel at timothy.aeppel@wsj.com