June 15, 2001

Tire Threat: The Road to Recall

Ford Motor Makes a Detailed Case Against Firestone With New Data

Staff Reporters of T HE WALL STREET J OURNAL

DETROIT -- Ratcheting up its attack on Firestone tires ahead of congressional safety hearings, Ford Motor Co. made its most detailed public presentation yet of its case against the tire maker, backing it up with new data.

The development came as Ford's chief executive officer, Jacques Nasser, and Firestone CEO John Lampe prepared to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next Tuesday to testify about why Ford last month abruptly decided to replace as many as 13 million additional Firestone Wilderness tires, which weren't part of last summer's big tire recall, that were used on its previous-generation Explorer sport-utility vehicles and several other models.

But Ford also could face questions about the safety of its 1990-2001 Explorer models, prompted by attacks on the vehicle by tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., a unit of Bridgestone Corp. of Japan. In a signal that the House committee might not go easy on the auto maker, a spokesman for committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R., La.) raised questions about an analysis Ford conducted comparing the safety of Firestone tires with that of another brand.

Ken Johnson, Mr. Tauzin's spokesman, said Ford apparently had run tests on the Firestone tires at lower inflation pressure levels and higher weight loads than it did on Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. tires. Mr. Johnson also criticized Ford officials for failing to answer "pages and pages" of questions that the committee has submitted to the auto maker in recent weeks about its tire-testing process.

"While Ford is busy spinning its story in the press, our investigators are left spinning their wheels in the sand," Mr. Johnson said.

Ford disputed Mr. Johnson's allegations, saying that it conducted tests on both Firestone and Goodyear tires using a range of tire pressures and weight loads. Mr. Johnson "has all the facts including the barrage of tests conducted at different tire pressures and at different weights on all tires tested," said Jason Vines, a Ford spokesman.

At least some of the Ford data, which the company shared with different media representatives and others last week, appeared to confirm that Ford conducted a variety of tests on both brands of tires.

Earlier in the day, Richard Parry-Jones, Ford group vice president for global product development and quality, speaking to reporters and analysts, stressed that Firestone tires are more prone to tread separations than those made by Goodyear. He said the study of Explorers sold between 1995 and 1997, which were fitted with 2.9 million Firestone tires and an equal number of Goodyear tires as original equipment, found there were 1,183 tread separations associated with Firestone tires and just two with Goodyear tires.

Mr. Parry-Jones said a possible cause for Firestone's poorer performance, among other things, was what the auto maker found was Firestone tires' tendency to get hotter than Goodyear tires. He said a big factor behind this could be differences in the construction and manufacturing of tires designed by Firestone and Goodyear, despite using the same specifications supplied by Ford.

Firestone lashed back at Ford. "Once again, this is Ford trying to divert attention away from the Explorer," said Firestone spokeswoman Jill Bratina. She repeated the tire maker's objection to the way Ford is interpreting claims data provided to the auto maker by Firestone.

Still, tires aren't the only headache for Ford. This year's edition of a closely watched annual study, released Thursday here, showed General Motors Corp. nearly erased the productivity gap with Ford in 2000, highlighting Ford's stalling productivity.

According to Michigan-based consultants Harbour & Associates, which issued the productivity study, the efficiency gap between GM and Ford shrank to less than one worker hour. It said GM took 40.52 worker hours to produce a vehicle last year, improving the overall productivity of GM's assembly, stamping and engine-building operations in North America by 8% from a year earlier. Ford's productivity, meanwhile, slipped 7%, with the company taking 39.94 hours to build a vehicle.

He said GM, meanwhile, was reaping the results of years of efforts in boosting manufacturing efficiency in part by emulating the manufacturing method pioneered by Toyota Motor Corp. Having started late in similar efforts, Ford has been able to show few tangible results, he said. "Clearly GM has more momentum right now," Mr. Harbour said.

Write to Norohiko Shirouzu at norohiko.shirouzu@wsj.com, Stephen Power at stephen.power@wsj.com and Timothy Aeppel at timothy.aeppel@wsj.com