Ford Investigates Firestone Tires

Friday, August 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Almost 100 years ago, Henry Ford chose Harvey Firestone to supply tires for America's first mass-produced automobiles. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship and fortunes that would outlive them both.

The companies that grew out of the relationship are trying to maintain their solidarity in the face of a government investigation into whether Firestone tires used on Ford Motor Co.'s popular Explorer have caused people to die.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has 193 complaints, including reports of 21 deaths, that Firestone tires peel off their casings, sometimes as the car they are on is barreling down the road at speed.

Many of the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires are original equipment on Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan and Subaru SUVs and pickups, but most accidents reported to the traffic safety agency have involved the Ford Explorer, the industry's top-selling sport utility vehicle.

Concern about the tires prompted Sears Roebuck & Co. to pull them from its store shelves starting Friday.

``There's no recall, but until we have more information from Firestone, the responsible thing to do is to discontinue sales,'' Sears spokesman Tom Nicholson said Thursday.

Firestone's ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires will no longer be sold at 780 Sears Auto Centers or the 350 National Tire & Battery shops.

NHTSA's investigation is in its preliminary stages, but sometimes such investigations lead to a recall by the manufacturer, which in this case is Firestone's parent company, Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone/Firestone.

Ford is looking into the case on its own. Company officials say it's too soon to say how they might respond, but spokesman Ken Zino said Ford's decision probably would not involve dropping its longtime tire supplier.

``I can envision no response to a problem, if there is one, that doesn't involve working closely with Bridgestone/Firestone,'' Zino said. ``I think it's extremely unlikely that this long-standing supplier would not work closely with us.''

Bridgestone/Firestone has involved Ford in its crisis communications plan since the investigation began in May, said Christine Karbowiak, spokeswoman for the tire company.

``We have a relationship with Ford. We've cherished it since 1906,'' she said in an interview from Akron, Ohio, where the company was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Firestone tires.

``We want to make sure our customer is happy, whether it's Ford or it's somebody coming in to buy five tires.''

Karbowiak said consumers had been ``unduly concerned'' by media reports of the investigation, but the company is using the coverage as an opportunity to educate people about tire safety.

The company is encouraging owners to go to a Firestone Tire and Service Center for free inspections of their tires.

``These things aren't indestructible,'' Karbowiak said. ``They are made out of rubber. Every passenger car sold in the United States is sold with a spare tire, and they're sold with a spare tire for a reason.''

Two Florida families sued Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone on July 24, alleging tire treads on their Ford Explorers separated and caused fatal accidents. Similar suits concerning the tires have been filed since 1996.

The Washington-based Public Citizen advocacy group alleges that as many as 30 deaths have been caused by tire separation. Strategic Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based group that does research for plaintiffs' attorneys, is recommending to Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone that they recall tires on 1991 through 2000 models.

According to NHTSA, 28 of the reports of tread separation noted that the tire remained inflated, sometimes even after a crash. In two cases, the tire tread wrapped around the rear axle and locked up the wheels.

Tread failure was reported at a speed of 20 mph, but 55 mph to 75 mph was typical. Some tires that failed had been used fewer than 2,000 miles, agency records show.

Most of the complaints came from Texas and southern and southwestern states with warmer climates. Heat can affect tire tread bonding and may be associated with an increased rate of tread separation.

Ford has replaced Firestone tires for free on vehicles sold in Venezuela, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia, Colombia and Saudi Arabia after tires failed in those countries. It did not accept blame, but Ford said it swapped tires ``as a customer satisfaction issue.'' It has not made a decision on replacing tires for U.S. customers.