AKRON—Before the dust even settled from Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s historic recall announcement, tire dealers' phones began ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
Even though only one size of three models of light truck tires is involved in the massive recall, a number of dealers—and their concerned customers—are expressing some misgivings about overall confidence in the Firestone brand.
Follow-up phone calls to dealers responding to a Tire Business Rapid Response Fax/E-poll indicated the level of concern may be growing among consumers.
Al Guntharp of Warren Tire Service in East Greenbush, N.Y., watched the press conference announcing the recall Aug. 9 on CNN. A short time later, he replaced a customer's original equipment Firestone tires on a 2001 Ford Explorer with Goodyear Wrangler RT-S tires.
This recall is reminiscent of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.'s crisis with the Firestone 500 radial tire in 1978, Mr. Guntharp said, but it's being handled better this time. "I'm glad to see Firestone step up and take care of the consumer," he said.
He thinks drivers who want a smooth, car-like ride in a sport-utility vehicle are a big part of the problem. They drive on the highway at 70 mph with temperatures in the 90s in an SUV loaded with family and luggage—on tires with low air pressure, he said. That leads to tire failure.
"Tire maintenance is lacking," he said. "We preach to our customers tire rotation and air pressure checks."
Scott Weininger of Wilson Tire Co. in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, agreed that much of the problem could be poor tire maintenance by drivers. While doing free tire checks of Firestone tires on several vehicles, mostly Ford Explorers, he found nail punctures in three tires.
"The recall is good for the consumer, but not good for (BFS)," said Sherry Clay Marcoe of Jeff Clay and Sons Tires in Kissimmee, Fla., a warm-weather community where the tire problems have "put the fear of God" in her customers.
Many customers have tried to call a Firestone customer service hotline set up by the tire maker for this crisis, she said, but they say can't get through. One of Ms. Marcoe's customers has had two Firestone tires fail and is going to replace her tires with another brand, she added.
"I think they (BFS) had no choice," said Ann McWhinney of McCoy Tire Service in Sonora, Calif., of the recall. Within hours of the recall announcement, about two-thirds of the calls to McCoy Tire were about replacing the tires.
At Huddle Tire Co. in Lancaster, Ohio, Chris Huddle described the recall as a "short-term mess." The dealership is getting "tons of calls" from people with other models of Firestones not involved in the recall.
A local Ford dealer bought 28 Goodyear Wrangler tires from Huddle Tire to put on seven new Ford Explorers on his lot—to replace the OE Firestones, Mr Huddle said.
The negative effect on the Firestone brand has "gone beyond the affected models (of tires)," he said.
Many dealers said they didn't have sufficient inventory to replace recalled tires and were putting customers' names on a waiting list.
By the time the recall was announced, Jerry C. White of White Tire Supply in Beaumont, Texas, had fielded more than 60 calls from customers. The BFS warehouses are out of the replacement sizes, he said, and Michelin was only able to fill 20 percent of his normal order for the P235/75R15 size.
Before the recall was announced, several dealers expressed confidence in the quality of the recalled Firestone tires.
"My son rides on ATX tires," said Larry Morgan, CEO of Morgan Tire & Auto Inc. in Clearwater, Fla. "We've given them (store managers) total authority at the store level to do everything.|.|.|we'll do what it takes to make the customer happy."
"We've been with Firestone since 1919, and we're not about to drop them now," said David Price, retail manager for Ziegler Tire & Oil Co. in Canton, Ohio.
Tom Wright, owner of Wright Tire Service in Anoka, Minn., and president of the Tire Association of North America said there may be a silver lining for independent dealers in this situation.
During the Firestone 500 recall, Mr. Wright said his dealership replaced some tires with 70,000 miles or more on them for free, even though there were no apparent defects. Some of these customers felt they ought to be paying for something, he said, so they purchased new brakes or shocks.
"That's how we started our business," Mr. Wright said. "That got us off the ground. A recall can be the best possible thing for a dealer—if he handles it right."
All the attention in the news media and the recall have made many dealers a lot busier.
Kevin Miller of Tom's Discount Tire Center in San Gabriel, Calif., didn't have time to give his reaction. "We're swamped," he said with another phone line ringing in the background.