What You Don't Know About The Infamous Ford-Firestone Controversy

firestone and ford

By Tom Merola, Automotive Tire Expert | Email: tmerola@townfair.com

The Ford-Firestone Blowout

It has been 20 years since the Ford Motor Company and Firestone (now Bridgestone-Firestone Inc.) set the stage for what was to become the most controversial recall of the early 21st century. In the end, one hundred years of history was severed that began from a personal friendship between two of America’s most prominent automotive pioneers.

It was the type of dramatic ending that both Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone would have found painful to watch as their successors blamed eachother before congressional committees for the recall of 6.4 million Firestone tires linked to a rash of rollover accidents on Ford Explorer SUVs.

Although largely forgotten about today, the Ford-Firestone Controversy is a story of how negligence, greed, and corporate deception killed over 200 people and one of the automotive industry's longest-lasting partnerships.

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Problem Detected

The Ford-Firestone dispute blew up in August 2000. Firestone, in response to claims that their 15-inch Wilderness AT, radial ATX and ATX II tire treads were separating from the tire core causing crashes, recalled 6.5 million tires from the Ford Explorer.

If we go back even further, as early as 1996, we find that personal injury lawyers were aware of accidents, injuries and fatalities caused by the tread of Firestone tires separating from the tire at high speeds. One can argue that Firestone had more information about tire failures than Ford did because of warranty claims, however, Firestone never acted on this information because it always blamed consumers for not maintaining their tires correctly.

roll over

On March 6, 2000 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began a preliminary inquiry and on May 2, the NHTSA began an investigation concerning the high incidence of tire failures and accidents of Ford Explorers and other light trucks and SUV's fitted with Firestone Radial ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness tires.

This is when things started getting ugly.


The Ford Explorer

ford explorer failures

Ford began producing its now-legendary Explorer for the first time in 1990. Ultimately, the Explorer’s versatility, four-wheel drive practicality and iconic styling made it an all-star in the fledgling SUV market. As always, Ford used tires made by Firestone, who had recently been acquired by the Japanese tire manufacturer Bridgestone.

The early Explorer's handling characteristics came with some deficiencies. It was heavy and featured a twin I-beam front suspension that was supposed to offer better stability than the live axle setup that was offered in the Jeep Cherokee. This early form of independent front suspension gave the Explorer a smoother ride, but the extra comfort came with some drawbacks. Any vertical movement of the suspension, like going over a bump, would upset the wheel’s camber angle to some extent, resulting in reduced high-speed stability and increased rollover danger.

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This phenomenon contributed, in part, to rollovers in preproduction testing. As a result, engineers recommended that the design of front suspension be modified. Instead, Ford decided to correct the instability by running the Explorer with a lower front tire pressure than usual.

This temporary makeshift solution seemed to work, and the Explorer’s front-end stability was sufficiently improved. It did, however, come with a price: the lower pressure would reduce the durability and lifespan of the tire.

Investigation and Possible Causes

The failures all involved tread separation where the tire tread peeled off leading the tire to disintegrate. There were several primary causes of the tread separations; tire age, manufacturing facility, operating temperature, and vehicle weight.

tire seperation

Ford did their own investigation into the matter, and confirmed that the Firestone tires were suffering from alarmingly high failure rates. In court cases retired Firestone workers testified that workers had to inspect as many as 100 tires per hour which they believed was far too many tires to do an adequate job.

They also testified that they were told to use benzene on tire adhesives that had lost its tack from sitting too long. Benzene can damage the materials in a tire.

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Despite this knowledge, a special committee formed by the U.S. Senate found evidence that Ford and Firestone did not inform the NHTSA of the problem. It was estimated that, as a result of the problems with Firestone tires, over 200 people died in accidents brought on by tread separation.

Publicly, Firestone argued that Ford's recommended 26 psi inflation pressure was too low and should have been 30 psi. In addition Firestone argued that the Explorer was abnormally dangerous and prone to rollovers in the event of a tire failure, leading to more injuries and fatalities.

Ford argued that the Explorer was no more dangerous than any other SUV and that the accident rate for Explorers with Goodyear tires was far lower than for Explorers with Firestone tires. Ford also argued that there was something wrong with the design of Firestone tires and with the manufacturing of those tires with Benzene.


roll over 2

On August 9, 2000 Firestone issued a recall covering 6.5 million P235/75 R15 Firestone ATX and ATX II tires and P235/75R15 Wilderness AT tires manufactured after 1991 and 1996 respectively.

On May 22, 2001 Ford announced a voluntary recall of all Wilderness AT tires of 15, 16, and 17 inches installed on all Ford trucks and SUV's. This covered an additional 13 million Firestone tires and cost Ford $3 billion.

It is estimated that these tire failures and rollovers cost Firestone $1.67 billion and Ford Motor Company $530 million. Bridgestone's market price dropped by 50% and the resulting restructuring cost Bridgestone $2 billion. In 2001, Ford recorded a loss of $5.5 billion.

Ford/Firestone Corporate Relations

For Ford and Firestone, the consequences were staggering. Both companies were inundated with lawsuits and the charges they made about each other were not reconcilable, however in the process they both ignored the bigger problem with SUVs.

Even as Ford battled to defend its most profitable line, it found itself under legal attack, subject to a possible federal investigation, and its Explorer sales waning.

family wins

In May 2001, Firestone announced that it was severing its ties with Ford and alleged that the problems in the Ford Explorer caused the deaths. In July 2003 Bridgestone announced a settlement agreeing to pay $240 million to Ford Motor Co. to settle claims.

In the end, Firestone alleged that Ford was trying to divert attention from the problems with Explorer. Which calls into question: Was it ethical on the part of Ford and Firestone to cover the problems in the Firestone tires?

Who's right, Ford of Firestone? Or are both wrong in what they said about each other?

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