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NHTSA Opens Investigation Into Ford Crown Victoria Axle Fractures

DETROIT January 26, 2004; Sharon Silke Carty writinfg for Dow Jones reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a preliminary investigation into 2003 model year Crown Victorias after two police fleets reported unusual axle wear on a "significant" number of their police cars.

Four incidents involving rear axle shaft fractures or wheel assembly separation incidents were reported. Spokesman Tim Hurd said the agency doesn't know of any injuries related to the problem.

Ford's Crown Victoria platform, called Panther, also forms the basis of the Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Grand Marquis. NHTSA is seeking information from Ford on all three models, accounting for about 287,000 cars, according to documents provided by the agency.

About half of the preliminary investigations that are opened are closed without any action taken, and many of those that are upgraded to engineering studies are also closed with no action.

Sales of the Crown Victoria have been down in recent years after reports began surfacing that the cars had a tendency to burst into flames when high-speed vehicles struck the police cruisers from behind. Several lawsuits from families of victims who died in fires and from burn victims who survived the accidents have been filed against Ford.

Sales of the popular police cruiser dropped to 78,000 in 2003 from 108,000 in 1998, when the lawsuits began surfacing. Still, the car is driven by 85% of all U.S. police officers by some estimates.

Ford spokesman Glenn Ray said the company is cooperating with the NHTSA's investigation.

"There really isn't much I can say," Ray said. "We are aware of the investigation, but it is premature at this point to speculate as to how the investigation will turn out."

After investigating the rear-end collision fires, the NHTSA closed the probe in October 2002.

The Panther platform is a rear-wheel-drive model popular with the police because of its strength and speed. The gas tank is mounted in the rear near the trunk, in an area some call a "crumple zone" because it collapses in a collision.

Since October 2002, Ford has offered shields for installation around the gas tank. In August, the company also said it would offer fire-suppression technology on 2005 models, but could not retrofit existing cars.

The city of Philadelphia on Friday added its name to the list of plaintiffs suing Ford, claiming the company has not done enough to stop the Crown Victoria fires. The National Association of Police Organizations filed a similar suit last year in New York, and police departments in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Illinois and New Jersey also have filed suit.