Washington Post Ford Vs. Bridgestone Story

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announced yesterday that it is severing its 95-year-old relationship with Ford Motor Co., accusing the carmaker of "casting doubt" on the quality of Firestone tires to "divert attention" from safety problems in its popular Explorer sport-utility vehicle.

The announcement was the latest escalation in a feud between the two companies that has simmered since last August's recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, which have been linked to the deaths of 174 people, mostly in Explorers.

Sources said Ford is prepared to announce today that it will move on its own to replace millions of other Firestone tires still in use on Explorers and other Ford products. The company said Ford President Jacques Nasser will visit Congress to brief lawmakers on his engineers' recent findings of more problems in Firestone tires.

Ford is "uncomfortable with the Wilderness name" and will take action to address those concerns, one source said. Firestone tires are still being offered as an option on the 2002 Explorer, but Ford officials said there have been very few takers. Most of the new-equipment tires are now made by Goodyear and Michelin.

Ford's plans for a public shunning of the Firestone name could raise concerns about the long-term survival of the tiremaker. Firestone recently launched a multimillion-dollar television advertising campaign in an effort to win back customers by assuring them of the quality and safety of its tires.

The stakes are high for Ford as well, since the Explorer is a significant moneymaker for the company and the redesigned 2002 model has had its own problems, with the carmaker announcing its third recall of the new SUV yesterday.

In an interview yesterday, Bridgestone/Firestone chief executive John Lampe said he doesn't believe Firestone's split with Ford is an unparalleled corporate divorce.

"I've always believed that for any relationship to be solid, to go forward, to prosper, you have to have mutual respect for one another," he said. "With Ford not willing to share its information on Explorers, with its continued insistence to divert all attention to the tire and not address the vehicle aspect of the problem, it was very concerning."

As for Firestone's prospects, Lampe said: "I think the future is still very, very solid. Business is better than we expected it to be on the consumer side, by no means back to where it was [before the recall], but stronger than we thought it would be. . . . I know we can survive without Ford; it's less than 5 percent of our total revenues. While that's significant, it is replaceable."

This last round in the breakup of the Ford-Firestone partnership began late last week when Ford leaked news that it had met with federal regulators about failures in Firestone tires not covered by the recall. Lampe responded by saying he was outraged by Ford's action.

Yesterday, after a four-hour meeting in Nashville with Carlos Mazzorin, Ford's group vice president of global purchasing, Lampe handed him a letter severing Firestone's ties with the automaker. Lampe said he had drafted the letter before the meeting.

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

Firestone currently provides 17 percent of the original-equipment tires used by Ford in North America.

Lampe noted that given the history of the two companies it was not a decision Firestone made lightly. Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. is the great-grandson of Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, founders of their respective companies.

Hours after Lampe's action, Ford issued a brief statement saying it was "deeply disappointed" in Firestone's decision. It then outlined a campaign to place the blame on any accidents involving the Explorer and Firestone tires squarely on Firestone. Ford said it had new evidence that the crashes involving the Explorer were the result of manufacturing problems at Firestone.

At a news conference, Lampe accused Ford of trying to divert attention away from the Explorer by casting doubt on the quality of the Firestone tires. He said Firestone had provided the automaker with "extensive data, including compelling testing data on other tires" showing that Firestone tires were safe and that other vehicles equipped with the company's tires did not have the same accident rate.

"So the question must be asked: Why does this seem to be happening only on Ford Explorers and not other vehicles?" he said.

Lampe said he has been trying to reach Nasser since Friday morning, even leaving his cell-phone number, but has not heard from him.

Both Ford and Firestone are preparing new engineering analyses for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is continuing to investigate the tire recall.

"Although it's difficult to predict precisely, the investigation should be concluded this summer," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for NHTSA. "It has been, and continues to be, a tire investigation."

Joan Claybrook, president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, which has joined trial lawyers in urging a wider recall of Firestone tires, hailed Ford's apparent decision to replace Wilderness AT tires. She said it is "important to get them off the road before the summer months" because most of the tire-related accidents happened in warmer weather.

Claybrook added that Firestone's suggestion that the Explorer is in part to blame for the deaths and 700 injuries associated with the Firestone tire "is accurate."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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