- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Ford Motor Co. plans to replace 10 million to 13 million Firestone tires that were left out of the recall ordered last summer by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., auto industry sources said yesterday.

Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser will fly to Washington this morning to brief lawmakers on the plan, then make an announcement later in the day at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., the sources said.

Earlier yesterday, Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc., citing safety concerns about Ford's Explorer sport utility vehicle, ended its 95-year relationship with the automaker.

John T. Lampe, chairman, chief executive and president of Bridgestone/Firestone, said he met yesterday with Ford's lead research team at the tire maker's Nashville headquarters. When they couldn't agree on analyses of the root problem leading to the recall, Mr. Lampe notified Ford that Firestone was severing ties.

"Business relationships, like personal ones, are built upon trust and mutual respect," Mr. Lampe wrote in a letter to Mr. Nasser. "We have come to the conclusion that we can no longer supply tires to Ford since the basic foundation of our relationship has been seriously eroded."

Mr. Nasser issued a statement yesterday that faulted Firestone tires, not the Ford Explorer, for the safety problems.

"We are deeply disappointed … that Firestone decided not to work together for the safety of our shared customers, which is the only issue that matters," Mr. Nasser said.

Last August, Bridgestone/ Firestone recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Federal safety investigators have collected more than 6,000 accident reports including 174 traffic deaths linked to blowouts, tread separations and other problems with the tires.

Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have exchanged blame for the tire failures, but both companies had said they thought the recall was adequate to cover all defective tires.

Firestone's decision ends a relationship with Ford that started in 1906 when Henry Ford was standardizing his Model T and ordered 8,000 tires from friend Harvey Firestone.

Ford and Firestone later became family when their grandchildren William Clay Ford and Martha Parke Firestone married in 1947. Current Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. is the great-grandson of the automotive pioneers.

The relationship reached a breaking point after Ford officials met last Thursday with federal investigators to say they are concerned other Wilderness ATs not included in the recall might pose safety problems.

Bridgestone/Firestone was not included in the meeting and Mr. Lampe sent Mr. Nasser a letter Friday saying he was outraged to learn of it through the media.

"This is not a decision we make lightly after almost 100 years of history," Mr. Lampe said. "But, we must look to the future and the best interests of our company, our employees and our other customers."

Mr. Nasser said the automaker would present its latest analysis of its findings today, but did not immediately elaborate.

Mr. Lampe said he was angry not because Firestone was not included in the meeting, since Firestone has had its own meetings with federal investigators, but because Ford didn't give Firestone a courtesy call about it.

He said Ford has not cooperated with Firestone since the recall, despite a public pledge to share information on the vehicle and the tires in attempt to determine the cause of the problem.

Bridgestone/Firestone will honor the terms of its existing agreements, with Ford but will enter into no new tire-sales agreements.

Most of the recalled tires were sold as original equipment on the Ford Explorer, the world's best-selling sport utility vehicle. And most deaths occurred when a tire failed and the Explorer rolled over.

Both companies have analyzed the tire failure. Ford concluded it was a problem with the design and a unique manufacturing process at Bridgestone/Firestone's plant in Decatur, Ill.

However, Bridgestone/Firestone officials said the Explorer's design and Ford's decision to recommend an inflation level lower than what the tire maker suggested were the primary factors.

He said customers file 10 times more claims against the Explorer than the Ford Ranger, which were equipped with the same Firestone tires.

Mr. Lampe said Firestone believes that shows the problem is with the Explorer, not the tires.

"Our tires are safe. Our tires are performing very well," Mr. Lampe said. "Why does this seem to be happening only on Ford Explorers and not other vehicles with Firestone tires?"

Mr. Lampe would not discuss the value of Ford's business with Firestone, but he said it represented only 5 percent of the company's total revenues. Last year, Firestone had $18.6 billion in sales.

A spokesman for General Motors, which uses Firestone tires as original equipment on 14 vehicles, said the automaker's relationship with Bridgestone/Firestone remains "strong and it remains unchanged.

"Real-world performance of Firestone tires we provide as original equipment has been excellent," said Terry Rhadigan, the spokesman.

Both Ford and Bridgestone/ Firestone face hundreds of lawsuits over the accidents.

Ford has said its costs relating to the tire recall totaled about $500 million. Mr. Lampe has said Bridgestone/Firestone spent at least $450 million on the recall and recently began a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to assure the public that its tires are safe.

On Sunday, Ford announced a recall of more than 50,000 new Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers because some tires may accidentally have been cut by a narrow assembly line. The tires involved are Goodyear and Michelin brands. Ford said the cuts are cosmetic and do not affect tire performance.

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