FORD replacing Firestone tires at a cost of $2.1 billion

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) _ Ford Explorer owners who replaced their sport utility vehicles' tires after last summer's Firestone recall may soon be changing those tires again.

Ford Motor Co. announced Tuesday it would replace all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires now on Ford vehicles _ twice as many tires as Bridgestone/Firestone included in its August recall.

After analyzing road test data, government research and scientific data ``we simply do not have enough confidence in those tires in keeping our customers safe,'' said Jacques Nasser, Ford's president and chief executive.

The automaker said it would replace 15-, 16- and 17-inch Wilderness AT tires over a period of several months, starting with the oldest tires. Ford estimated the replacements would cost it $2.1 billion after taxes.

The announcement came one day after Bridgestone/Firestone said it was severing its relationship with Ford.

Bridgestone/Firestone Chief Executive John Lampe defended the company's tires in a written statement Tuesday, saying: ``No one cares more about the safety of the people who travel on our tires than we do. Our tires are safe. When we have a problem we fix it.''

Ford said millions of vehicle owners would be sent notices instructing them to have their Wilderness AT tires replaced with tires made by Goodyear, Michelin and Continental. Free replacements will be available at Ford dealers; customers who buy replacements will be reimbursed up to $110 for 15- and 16-inch tires and up to $130 for 17-inch tires.

Wilderness AT tires are used on Ford Explorers, Expeditions, Rangers and some F-150 pickup trucks.

To divert more tires, Ford said it was shutting down production for two weeks at two plants in St. Paul, Minn., and Edison, N.J., and will suspend production of various Explorer models in Louisville, Ky., for one week.

Last summer, Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, most of which were original equipment on Ford Explorers. The federal government said the tires had been linked to at least 170 deaths and more than 700 injuries.

In making the case to replace the additional tires, John Rintimaki, Ford's group vice president and chief of staff, said that while non-recalled Wilderness AT tires performed better than those recalled, government data suggested they still experienced failures ``at an elevated rate'' as compared with competitor's tires.

Bridgestone/Firestone's analysis concluded the sport utility vehicles themselves played some role in causing the tread separations.

``The real issue here is the safety of the Explorer,'' Lampe said.

The tire company distributed charts that suggest even though Ford Ranger pickup trucks and Explorers ride on the same original equipment tires, more tire problems are reported by Explorer drivers.

Rintimaki, defending Ford's best-selling SUV, said his data showed that between 1995 and 1997 there were 1,183 tread separations on Firestone tires and just two on Goodyear tires.

The feud between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone came to a head Monday when Bridgestone/Firestone announced it was ending its 95-year relationship with Ford.

The move came following a meeting at the tiremaker's Nashville, Tenn., headquarters where Ford officials presented research and data bolstering its claim that Wilderness AT tires had safety issues.

Nasser said Ford never demanded a recall during the meeting.

For Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., the breakup between the two companies is especially poignant. He is the great-grandson of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.

``Firestone was an important part of my family,'' Ford said. ``So on a personal level this is tough. To see this all taking place is deeply disturbing,'' he said.

Ford said he would be open to resuming business with the tire company somewhere down the line. But he said, ``The relationship for the moment is ruptured.''