WASHINGTON—Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires has set off a whirlwind of events for the beleaguered tire maker.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based firm headed off a strike by reaching a tentative agreement with the United Steelworkers of America Sept. 4 (see related story on page 3). But that was just about the only good news for the tire maker in the days prior to and surrounding Labor Day.
In the two weeks since Tire Business' last issue went to press, breaking news involving the recall has been posted daily on the Tire Business Web site—www.tirebusiness. com.
For those who do not have access to the Internet, the following is a synopsis of the major recall-related events since approximately Aug. 24:
BFS agreed to replace 62,000 mismarked Wilderness AT tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone Venezolana C.A. and sold in Venezuela but only after coming under scrutiny from INDECU, the Venezuelan consumer protection agency.
On Aug. 31, INDECU accused BFS and Ford Motor Co. of deliberately withholding tire defects from the public and threatened both companies with possible criminal action.
Ford had undertaken a "consumer satisfaction" program in August 1999, recalling about 40,000 Ford vehicles to replace their Firestone Wilderness original equipment tires with Goodyear Wranglers. The auto maker said it urged BFS in August 2000 to recall all the Wilderness tires made at the Valencia, Venezuela, plant, because some were mismarked as having an extra nylon cap ply that Ford had requested.
Bridgestone/Firestone admitted to mislabeling some of the tires, mostly 16-inch sizes, but said there was no evidence of an actual defect in the tires.
While Ford and BFS haven't always sung the same tune during the current crisis, Ford seemed to be on the verge of declaring war when INDECU recommended criminal charges against the two companies.
In a teleconference the same day, Mr. Nasser said the Venezuelan situation was "a tire issue, not a vehicle issue," to contradict INDECU's contention that the problem was the result of mounting the Firestone tires on the Ford Explorer. He also said his company had "an extremely difficult and disappointing relationship" with BFS which it was "now taking one day at a time."
Meanwhile, at a teleconference held just after the Ford event, BFS Executive Vice President John Lampe said, "We want to do everything we can to continue our long-term relationship with Ford."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put out a consumer advisory Sept. 1, covering 1.4 million Firestone tires over and above the 6.5 million already recalled. These tires, in 24 different sizes and models, have tread separation rates that exceed those of the recalled tires, according to NHTSA.
BFS said it disagreed with the agency and wouldn't recall the tires, but added it would gladly inspect those tires and replace them free of charge at any company-owned store or authorized Firestone dealer if found faulty.
"Obviously, if there is a problem, we'll fix it," the company said. "If a customer is still concerned about their (sic) tires, we will replace the tires at no cost to the customers; we will use competitors' products if necessary."
NHTSA's advisory also suggested some asperity between the agency and Bridgestone/Firestone, with NHTSA saying it met with BFS officials Aug. 30 and recommended adding the 1.4 million extra tires to the recall.
"On Aug. 31, Firestone advised NHTSA that it would not voluntarily expand the recall at this time," the agency said. "We are continuing our investigation, which may result in an order directing Firestone to recall these tires and any other defective tires."
Until the investigation is complete, however, all NHTSA can do is advise motorists about its concerns, it said.
"Since Firestone has chosen not to expand the recall at this time, you may not be able to obtain free replacement tires from Firestone," the agency said. "However, in light of these concerns, NHTSA recommends that you consider replacing the tires in question and that you retain all documentation."
The tires included in the consumer advisory were ATX, Firehawk ATX, ATX 23 Degree, Widetrack Radial Baja, Widetrack Radial Baja A/S, Wilderness AT and Wilderness HT tires, both 15-and 16-inch, passenger and light truck. Most were made at the BFS facility in Decatur, Ill., although some of the ATX and Widetrack Radial Baja tires were made in Oklahoma City, and some of the Wilderness AT in Wilson, N.C.
The vast majority were for the replacement market, though a small fraction were original equipment on the 1991 Chevy Blazer, 1991-94 Nissan pickup and 1996-98 Ford F150. A few of the models were sold under private brand names.
But Bridgestone/Firestone declined to add the tires to the official recall, because "our preliminary review of the advisory reveals differences between our information about these tires and the agency's."
Both NHTSA and Bridgestone/ Firestone said they expected most of the tires to be retired from service by now. "Our estimates show fewer than half of these 1.4 million tires are still in use after years of service and miles of safe driving," the company said.
NHTSA also updated its list of complaints related to Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. The agency now has more than 1,400 complaints on file about those tires, including reports of 88 deaths and more than 250 injuries, it said.
The agency has written Ford, requesting additional information on foreign recalls of Firestone tires on Ford vehicles. NHTSA also wrote Goodyear, asking the Akron tire maker for complaint information on the Wrangler OE tires it provided for the Ford Explorer as part of a "peer analysis" of the Firestone recall.
NHTSA officially upgraded the Firestone investigation begun May 2 to an engineering analysis from a preliminary evaluation. If NHTSA engineers find a defect in the tires, under law the agency can order BFS to recall all 47 million of the three scrutinized Firestone lines made since 1991.
Stock prices of parent firm Bridgestone Corp. fell to a seven-year low of 1,200 yen on the Tokyo stock market Sept. 4.
A 10-year-old boy was killed and six others injured in Texas Sept. 3 when their Ford Explorer lost control and overturned. One of the vehicle's Firestone tires was shredded, and authorities couldn't tell at press time whether that was the cause or the result of the crash. This brings to four the number of persons killed in accidents involving Ford vehicles equipped with Firestone tires since the recall began Aug. 9.
Fleischman/Hillard, the St. Louis-based public relations firm BFS hired to field media inquiries about recall-related issues, resigned from the account over Labor Day weekend.
"We worked for them eight weeks," said a spokeswoman for the agency. "We put our best people on the account, and gave them our best counsel. But in the end it became evident that we could no longer be of service."
Bridgestone/Firestone officials could not be reached for comment on this or the other issues.
Bridgestone/Firestone will no longer be the sole source of tires for the Ford Explorer. A source within Ford confirmed that Michelin North America Inc. would be a second supplier and that Ford also is talking to Goodyear about supplying the redesigned Explorer, due out in January as a 2002 model.
The Florida state attorney general's office, using the authority of federal racketeering laws, subpeonaed documents from Ford and Firestone that would indicate when the two firms discovered problems with the recalled tires and whether they conspired to keep the problems secret. The companies have until Sept. 21 to answer the subpeonas.
Toyota Motor Corp. in Japan reaffirmed its support of Bridgestone/Firestone as a supplier, while Honda North America denied reports it was reconsidering its use of Bridgestone and Firestone tires.