In the most spectacular corporate crack-up in recent memory, consumers hardly knew whom to trust or root for last week. First, Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe brought the tiremaker's 95-year-old business with Ford Motor Co. to a screeching halt over what Lampe called "significant concerns" about the safety of the Ford Explorer. One day later, Ford said it would replace 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires--mounted mainly on Explorers--that were excluded from Firestone's sweeping 6.5 million tire recall last August. Firestone admitted that those tires were no good but maintains that everything else on the road today is safe. Ford doesn't see it that way. Declared Ford boss Jacques Nasser: "We simply do not have enough confidence in the future performance of these tires keeping our customers safe."
Ford is clearly trying to pin the damage on Firestone, and vice versa. But a five-month investigation by TIME of Ford documents, which the company prepared for investigators and government lawyers, shows Ford's engineers were wrestling with the stability and handling of the Explorer even before it hit the market in 1990--as a sibling for the notorious bucking Bronco II, which cost the company approximately $2.4 billion in damage settlements. Previously undisclosed memos and e-mails show the extent to which the engineers were juggling decisions about the Explorer's suspension systems, tire pressure, weight and steering characteristics, plus its height and width, all of which could factor into a vehicle's stability.
State and federal investigators as well as attorneys for the victims of Explorer rollovers are cheered by the split, because it will enable them to pit one company against the other in court. Accidents involving Firestone-equipped Explorers have accounted for most of the at least 174 deaths and more than 700 injuries that prompted Firestone to recall its 15-in. SUV tires last year. Ford faces hundreds of lawsuits that seek damages totaling more than $590 million, and the company is bracing for a report on the tire failures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Moreover, Representative Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, plans to hold hearings this summer on the way "this whole mess started and why we didn't hear about it until people started dying."
Investigators in Florida, which is leading the inquiry on behalf of all 50 state attorneys general, believe that Ford and Firestone share blame. Says attorney general Bob Butterworth: "If they already knew they had these problems, why did they put an inferior tire on this vehicle? The problem you have here is lawyers and the marketing department overruled the safety recommendations of engineers."
What is not in dispute is that some Firestone 15-in. Wilderness AT tires produced at its plant in Decatur, Ill., had defects that are implicated in tread separations and rollover accidents (338 claims out of 1.8 million tires made). Last week's $3 billion recall by Ford covered 15-in., 16-in. and 17-in. Wilderness tires produced at all Firestone factories. Many of the accidents occurred in hot regions, such as Florida and Texas and the Middle East. And no one denies that SUVs roll over more frequently than traditional autos. One reason: until recently most SUVs were built on pickup-truck bodies, which ride higher off the ground, raising the center of gravity.