- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

DETROIT Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., the great-grandson of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, said yesterday he had been stung on a personal level by the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires on Ford vehicles that may be linked to at least 88 deaths.

"It hurts to see a family name and a family heritage tarnished so badly," Mr. Ford said. "As disappointed as I am with what's happened there, I'm equally proud of what's happened with my other heritage" at Ford.

The Firestone family sold their interest in the company in 1988 to Bridgestone Corp. of Japan; Mr. Ford said he had no remaining financial interest in Firestone, just "a historical one and a bit of a leftover emotional one."

The chairman of the world's second-largest automaker repeated his company's mantra of the past month that the problems "were a tire issue, not a Ford issue." And he said the company's board of directors had reviewed and approved management's handling of the recall.

The automaker and the tire maker have grown apart since the recall was announced Aug. 9. Ford officials have blamed Bridgestone/ Firestone for ignoring warnings and data from as far back as 1998 showing a high number of defects with ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires.

While Bridgestone/Firestone has said it believes there could be defects in the tires, it has also said Ford's design of the Explorer might have played a role in the high number of deaths attributed to the tires.

Mr. Ford said the recall has strained Bridgestone/Firestone's standing as a supplier to his company, noting that Ford will allow buyers of the 2002 Ford Explorer to choose whether to have Firestone tires a move Mr. Ford said would be "a very telling step" about Firestone's future with Ford.

"Any time you select a supplier, you do so with a fair degree of trust," Mr. Ford said. "Obviously, that trust has been terribly shaken."

Mr. Ford praised the moves made by President and CEO Jacques Nasser since the recall began. He said he had left the role of public spokesman for the company to Mr. Nasser because the recall began as a product problem. When it turned into a furor over the business practices of Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, Mr. Ford decided that Mr. Nasser was still better suited to argue Ford's case.

"I made the judgment that it would be confusing and perhaps even undermining for me to jump in at that stage," he said. Mr. Ford said Mr. Nasser would continue leading Ford's responses, but "it's hard to say what's going to happen off in the future, because if there's an opportunity for me to help the company, I'll take it."

He also said the company would have to work hard to win back consumer trust after the recall was complete, and that the recall would not change a focus he had placed on the environment and safety since becoming chairman.

"The path we're on is not going to waver in the next 20 or 30 years or however long I'm here," Mr. Ford said.

Ford spokesman Ken Zino said more than 2 million tires of the 6.5 million had been replaced so far, and the company was still aiming to complete the recall by the end of the year.

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