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Firestone's Lampe turned the tables this spring, accusing Ford of refusing to share data about possible Explorer problems. At the same time, Ford was studying a government analysis of tires that Firestone did not include in last year's recall. Although the rate of problems was lower than it had been for the Decatur tires, the data persuaded Ford to announce its recall--even though Ford and Firestone had insisted for months that the problems were confined to the Decatur plant.
Ford execs may have also been worried that NHSTA would eventually declare a stricter safety standard than Firestone's Wilderness tires could meet. Ford asked NHSTA about the possibility last month. When the agency was noncommittal, Ford opted to replace the tires on its own. Firestone protested and asked Ford to show it the data so the tire company could decide for itself.
In the days before Ford acted last week, Lampe learned that the automaker was considering a recall. Lampe angrily phoned Nasser from a meeting in Mexico and again during a plane change in Dallas, but the Ford CEO avoided him. Ford vice president Carlos Mazzorin returned Lampe's call and agreed to a 7 a.m. meeting at Firestone headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., where the two men wrangled over whether the federal data justified a new recall. Even before that meeting, a wary Lampe had drafted a letter to Nasser terminating the historic partnership between Ford and Firestone.
The rupture split two companies that have been joined at the hip since Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone went camping together in the early years of the 20th century. "All this does is make both look less responsible to the public," says Jim Wangers of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. in San Diego.
It also speaks volumes about where these two archetypes of American industry stand. Bridgestone may be willing to send the Firestone brand on the road to extinction. Yet Ford is in the midst of an ambitious strategy to reinvent itself as the automobile industry's most socially and consumer-conscious force. Ford has staked its future on honesty. "The reason that they are spending so much money on this is that their credibility is at stake," says Merrill Lynch analyst John Casesa. "They are hoping that this obsessiveness now will in the end benefit the company."
Nevertheless, Ford continues to struggle to recover from doubts about the safety of the Explorer that were raised during last year's recall--an effort that was hardly helped last week when the automaker had to call back 47,000 of the 2002 Explorers to replace tires that were slashed on Ford's assembly line.
Ford announced the recall as the 2002 Explorer--loaded with incentives for current Explorer owners--rolled into dealer showrooms. In advertising the new model, Ford touts a "new level of safety," and well it should. Lower and 2 1/2 in. wider than its predecessor, the new SUV is in many ways the culmination of battles that Ford engineers fought out in documents assembled in connection with investigations and lawsuits. Billed as the "all-new 2002 Explorer," it incorporates design improvements that Ford rejected more than a decade ago.
--Reported by Elisabeth Kauffman/Nashville, Collette McKenna Parker and Timothy Roche/Atlanta, Joseph R. Szczesny/Detroit and Michael Weisskopf/Washington