WASHINGTON-At the beginning of 2000, Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford Motor Co. had one of the longest-running friendships in U.S. corporate history, dating to a handshake deal between Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone in 1906. It was hard to envision anything compromising it.
By the beginning of 2001-thanks to a very public recall involving millions of tires-that relationship was severely compromised; the CEOs of Ford and Firestone slung constant accusations as to how much blame each company deserved.
In May, the ties between tire and auto maker were severed abruptly with Ford's unilateral decision to replace 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires.
The end of the year found Ford and Bridgestone Corp., Bridgestone/Firestone's parent, trying gingerly to mend fences as both planned to appeal a class action certification in Indianapolis federal district court.
The February findings of Sanjay Govindjee, a University of California engineering professor hired by Bridgestone/Firestone, on the causes of tread separations in the 6.5 million originally recalled tires satisfied neither Ford nor consumer advocates.
Ford submitted a report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in April, blaming tire failures on Ford Explorers on faulty tire design and consumer negligence, and Public Citizen issued its own report saying Bridgestone/Firestone needed to recall another 10 million tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone, for its part, tried to repair its reputation with customers through its ``Making It Right'' program, which included production upgrades and expanded warranties on almost all passenger and light truck tires.
It also contended-with the concurrence of Public Citizen and others-that the Ford Explorer contained a design defect that made it prone to rollover and added to the tire failure problem.
The sniping reached its zenith in mid-May. After news leaked to the media that Ford claimed to have found safety problems with non-recalled Firestone tires, BFS released charts indicating that Ford Explorers had 10 times the tire failure rate of other Ford vehicles.
When Ford announced its unilateral recall, essentially making a public vote of no confidence against the tire maker, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John T. Lampe called it quits with the auto maker.
``Business relationships, like personal ones, are built upon trust and mutual respect,'' Mr. Lampe wrote to Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, who had maintained from the beginning that BFS solely was responsible for the accidents that claimed 271 lives. ``The basic foundation of our relationship has been eroded.''
Later, at a June 19 meeting of two House subcommittees, BFS submitted a report by Ohio State University engineering professor Dennis Guenther, stating that the Ford Explorer was prone to oversteer and roll over in a tread separation.
Ford countered with figures that it had seen only two tread separation claims on Goodyear original equipment tires on Explorers, compared with 1,183 on Firestone tires.
Congressmen at the hearings condemned not only Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, but NHTSA as well.
``The role of honest broker, which is precisely the mission of NHTSA, has been surrendered to two very threatened firms whose data, even if correct, appears to have been manipulated,'' said Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa.
The rest of the year brought further trouble to both companies. NHTSA recommended to Bridgestone/Firestone Oct. 4 that it recall 3.5 million more Wilderness tires, of which an estimated 768,000 were still on the road. BFS, despite previous statements that it would fight a further recall, decided to comply, with Bridgestone taking a $30 million charge against earnings to pay for the action. Bridgestone/Firestone also agreed to pay $51.5 million to settle a lawsuit by a group of state attorneys-general.
Ford, meanwhile, had a massive shakeup in its executive structure, with Mr. Nasser ousted for the Firestone-Explorer situation and other issues that were only partly his fault. Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr.-whose mother, coincidentally, was a Firestone-replaced Mr. Nasser as company president and CEO.
In their Honolulu meetings the weekend of Nov. 17, Bridgestone and Ford officials reportedly discussed how much Bridgestone should reimburse Ford for the estimated $3 billion it spent on the May recall.
Both companies, however, may face even more massive payouts in the certification of a product liability class action, made by an Indianapolis federal judge in November. Both companies have vowed to appeal the ruling.