WASHINGTON-Ford Motor Co.'s plan to replace millions of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.-made Wilderness AT tires has split one of the tire industry's longest and closest supplier-customer relationships.
John T. Lampe, BFS chairman, president and CEO, announced May 21 that his company was dropping Ford as an original equipment customer in the Americas after a 95-year association that began with strong ties between the founders of both companies, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.
The following day, Ford President and CEO Jacques Nasser announced that his company would spend $2.1 billion after taxes to replace 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires on Ford Explorers and other Ford vehicles.
Since then, the two companies have aimed a barrage of cross-accusations at each other. These represent the anger that has accumulated since last Aug. 9, when BFS announced a recall of 6.5 million 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires, most of which were original equipment on the Ford Explorer. The crux of the argument is simple: Ford claims Firestone is solely to blame for the accidents that have killed 174 people in the U.S. to date; Firestone insists that design flaws in the Explorer are at least a partial cause of those accidents.
House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., met with Messrs. Lampe and Nasser in separate meetings just before the Ford replacement plan was announced. Mr. Tauzin said he wants to schedule further hearings on the Ford-Firestone matter as soon as possible after the House gets back in session in June. Both Ford and Firestone said they looked forward to presenting their sides of the story.
``The basic foundation of our relationship has been seriously eroded,'' Mr. Lampe said in a May 21 letter to Mr. Nasser. He expanded on the letter later that day at a press conference at BFS headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. At that event, Mr. Lampe accused Ford of ``attempting to divert the attention and scrutiny away from their vehicles by casting aspersions on Firestone.... Most of the deaths and injuries involve Explorers, not other vehicles.''
Not to be outdone, Mr. Nasser said that Ford's information-combining field performance data, information on comparative tire performance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Ford's own technical analysis-indicated that the remaining 15-, 16- and 17-inch Wilderness tires on Ford vehicles performed unacceptably.
``We simply do not have enough confidence in the future safety of these tires,'' Mr. Nasser said during the press conference at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. ``It's as simple and basic and fundamental as that.'' These accusations have particularly incensed BFS, which maintains those tires are safe.
Ford claims the failure rate among the newly recalled tires is about 15 per million. This is roughly triple the normal rate but vastly below the failure rate of the tires recalled last August, which ranged from 60 to more than 200 per million, according to John Rintamaki, Ford group vice president and chief of staff, at the May 22 news conference.
More than 80 percent of the tires in the new recall are on Ford Explorers, though some are also on Mercury Mountaineers and Ford Rangers, the company said. The 1.5 million Wilderness tires used to help replace last year's recalled tires will be replaced in turn, and no Firestone tires will be used in the new replacement program, according to Mr. Rintamaki.
While Ford was still working out the details of the replacement plan the week of May 28, Mr. Rintamaki said at the news conference that owners of the Wilderness tires can get them replaced free of charge at any of the 3,500 Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers in the U.S. They also may get their tires replaced at ``authorized'' tire dealerships and apply to Ford for reimbursement of up to $110 for each 15-inch tire and $130 for each 16- and 17-inch tire.
A Ford spokesman said May 23 that the firm was conferring with various tire makers about using their tire dealers for the replacement program. He did not know whether that might include independent as well as company-owned dealers.
Ford and Goodyear issued a joint statement May 30, saying the two companies had agreed on a plan to allow Ford customers to obtain Ford-approved replacement tires free at more than 5,000 Goodyear retail outlets. Also, Goodyear has started increasing its shipments of tires to its network of independent and company-owned stores to assure adequate availability of replacement tires to Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers.
Ford will contact owners of older tires first about tire replacement, because ``newer tires under 3-years old have extremely low failure rates,'' Mr. Rintamaki said. To free up tires for the program, Ford will suspend production of the Ford Ranger for two weeks at its St. Paul, Minn., and Edison, N.J., facilities, and also stop making Ford Explorers at Louisville, Ky., for one week, he said.
Goodyear, Michelin North America Inc. and Continental Tire North America Inc. all have been approached by Ford to help provide replacement tires, with the Goodyear, Michelin, Uniroyal, BFGoodrich, Continental and General brands authorized as replacements.
Ford's tire replacement campaign represents an enormous blow to BFS. When Ford's concerns about the Wilderness AT tires started leaking to the media May 17, BFS responded that it was ``extremely concerned'' over Ford's allegations.
``Our review of the data does not support the allegations raised today by Ford,'' the tire maker said. ``It is difficult to understand why that company would choose to go to the media and not review their data and analysis first with Firestone.''
Since then, Ford and BFS have engaged in constant sniping and one-upmanship. For example, Ford and BFS officials met the morning of May 21; during that meeting, Mr. Lampe gave Carlos Mazzorin, Ford group vice president of global purchasing, a copy of the letter to Mr. Nasser withdrawing BFS from Ford OE contracts.
The next day, during the Ford press conference, BFS issued a statement saying Ford didn't inform the tire maker of its recall plans during the May 21 meeting. ``They did not ask us to join with them on a recall or a replacement program,'' BFS said. ``They told us they had made absolutely no decision concerning our tires on their vehicles.''
During the question-and-answer session at the press conference, Mr. Nasser said Ford officials would have told them everything had Mr. Lampe not cut them off. ``We didn't ask them (to join in the recall) because they said they wanted to terminate the relationship, and that was that,'' he said.
BFS also issued charts showing among other things that Ford Explorers have 10 times the tire failure rate as Ford Rangers equipped with the same tires. Mr. Rintamaki said during the press conference that comparing the tire failure rates of the Explorer and the Ranger was a false analogy, because the Explorer is a sport-utility vehicle and the Ranger is a pick-up truck. ``That data would be the same for any manufacturer,'' he said.
Ford unleashed its own comparative statistics at the press conference. BFS supplied 2.9 million Wilderness tires as OE for the Explorer, Mr. Rintamaki said, while Goodyear supplied the same number of tires for the Explorer built to the exact same specifications. The Firestone tires had over 1,100 reported tread separations, he said, while the Goodyear tires had only two.
BFS responded May 24 with charts showing that Explorers were twice as likely to roll over in tire-related accidents as other SUVs. With those charts, it circulated news articles saying that INDECU, the Venezuelan consumer protection agency, is recommending a ban on Ford Explorers in Venezuela because of alleged defects.
A spokesman for Ford Motor de Venezuela said his company is still in the dark about reports that Samuel Ruh Rios, head of INDECU, has documents showing that there have been 50 rollover accidents and 37 deaths in Venezuela involving Ford Explorers-only one of which was equipped with Firestone tires.
``We know that Ruh approached the Office of the Prosecutor, and is said to have delivered documents there,'' the spokesman said. ``He declined to comment on the nature of the documents.'' Mr. Ruh will not share his information with Ford, he added, and there are no official accident statistics in Venezuela for Ford to consult.
Meanwhile, both BFS and Ford have been busy countering various news reports. A Reuters story that General Motors Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. were dropping BFS as an OE supplier in the wake of the Ford recall prompted a joint statement of denial May 24 from BFS and GM.
``Bridgestone/Firestone is a valued supplier, and we are proud to offer both the Firestone and the Bridgestone brand on our vehicles,'' GM said. ``These tires perform, and have always performed, in a safe and outstanding manner for ourselves and our customers.''
Before the joint statement was issued, a BFS spokeswoman said GM and Nissan announced the changes in fitments in February as a routine business decision.
Also, an article in Newsweek claimed among other things that Ford would ask BFS to help pay for the new recall. But a Ford spokesman in Detroit said the company hasn't decided on whether to do that.
A BFS spokeswoman said Ford had not approached the tire maker about sharing the recall costs. ``We have said over and over that we do not see a need for this action, that our tires are safe, and this is a Ford issue, not a Firestone issue,'' she said.