True Stories From A Former Car Dealer: Firestone

1997 Ford Explorer Firestone Tires

The Ford Explorer came out in 1990 as a 1991 model and was an instant hit. We could not keep them in stock and could not get nearly as many as we could sell.  Sales were incredible the first dozen years or so of production, most years Explorer sales were roughly 400,000 vehicles.

Starting in about 1997, most Ford Explorers came with Firestone Wilderness AT tires.  At that time, the State of Arizona noticed a high instance of Firestone tire failures that resulted in rollovers, and Firestone agreed to make the suspect tires more heavy duty.  In 1998, State Farm insurance saw a trend of claims paid for accidents caused by Firestone tires blowing out.  That same year 46 people in Venezuela died who were riding on Firestone tires, and a Ford dealer in Saudi Arabia began replacing any Firestone tires in his new inventory with other brands.

By early 2000, the death toll of Ford Explorers with Firestone tires was rising.  Houston TV station KHOU ran a nine-minute story about 30 people in Texas who had died with the Explorer/Firestone combination and that set off a chain reaction of concern, and sometimes panic, for Explorer owners.  In August of 2000, Firestone recalled 6.5 million of the suspect tires.

The Ford and Firestone relationship went back 100 years or so.  However, there was tension between the almost century-old companies.  Firestone said Ford’s recommended tire pressure was too low and the Explorer was designed poorly.  Ford countered with facts to show that Explorers with Goodyear tires were not rolling over.

I became the Ford National Dealer Council Chairman in 2000, and in that position, I was briefed daily on where Ford stood on the Firestone issue.  I typically sold over 100 Explorers per month and was concerned for my customers.  I made the decision in August of 2000 that I was going to remove all Firestone Wilderness tires from vehicles in my inventory.  CNN did a story on the subject:

http://money.cnn.com/2000/08/14/companies/ford_dealers/

While Ford, Firestone, the NHTSA, and other agencies and attorneys continued to investigate, people kept dying.  Only one thing was clear:  The worst problems in the U.S. were confined to Arizona, Texas, and Florida.  Outside the U.S. Saudi Arabia and Venezuela were having the majority of deaths.  The common denominator?  Extreme heat.

Ford Explorer rollover accidents led the news nightly for weeks.  I had calls from people who refused to drive them anymore.  Some traded them in on other vehicles, some bought different brand tires and paid for them.  I was inundated with interview requests from major networks and local news agencies.

In mid-May of 2001, I had won a huge Ford award for customer satisfaction called the Chairman’s Award.  This was the pinnacle of awards and it was especially hard for large volume dealers to win.  The celebration was going to be held in Florida at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Naples.  To be honest, I was tired and very much looking forward to a few days of relaxation.

There were delays due to weather leaving DFW airport.  The delays turned into hours, but I finally completed the journey after midnight.  I got to the hotel between 1 AM and 2 AM, but the next day was a free day, or so I thought.

As I walked into the empty Ritz lobby to the reception desk, the lone receptionist said: “I have an urgent message for you”.  Those are not words you want to hear.  She handed me a note from Ford CEO Jacques Nasser.  It was short and it just simply said to call his room, no matter what time I get in and he signed it simply -Jac.  There was a phone in the lobby so I called the CEO.  We had our share of battles, and he had made it known that he disliked some of my comments about Ford buying dealerships to operate, cutting out the Ford dealers, but that is a different true story episode.  Suffice it to say, we were not chums.

I called and could tell I woke him up.  He said can you meet me in our conference room at 8 AM with some of my management team, we are going to have a conference call with Bill Ford, the Chairman Of The Board of Ford Motor Company.  I agreed to be there but did not have a clue what the subject was.

After a few hours sleep, I went to the meeting room and seated were all the top brass at Ford.  Jac Nasser came in a few minutes late carrying a stack of file folders about a foot high, maybe more.  He directed a staffer to get Bill Ford on a speakerphone in the middle of the tables that were arranged in a square.  While they were making the connection, Nasser looked up and simply said: “we got ‘em”.  Someone in the room, not me, asked: “got who?”  He simply replied “Firestone”.

When Mr. Ford got on the phone, Jac Nasser explained to us that Ford auditors had irrefutable proof that the Explorer rollover issue was caused by the tires.  They had the dates the bad tires were made, the exact manufacturing plant and the cause, which was faulty glue holding the belts to the sidewalls.  In extreme heat, like in Texas, Florida, and Arizona, the bad glue would break down, causing the tires to separate and blow out.  There was no doubt the information was correct, I saw it myself.

What happened next was a major shock to me.  Nasser said “we are going to immediately recall all Firestone Wilderness tires on Ford Explorers.  Every customer will get a new set of tires, no charge to them for labor, balancing, or any other associated costs.  They will even get a new spare tire.”

Someone in the room asked about how many tires we were talking about here.  Nasser said there were 13 million Firestone Wilderness tires on Explorers and it would cost Ford 3 billion dollars to do the recall.  I’m confused now.  Why would Ford spend 3 billion dollars on a recall that they knew was the fault of Firestone?

On May 22, 2001, the recall was announced.  The replacements were being done at Ford dealerships all across America.  At my dealership, we hired extra personnel so we could install Explorer tires from 7 AM to midnight, non-stop, six days a week.  We had one lane on our service drive dedicated just to people coming in for this recall.  It was months and months, possibly even a year, before we got to everyone to whom we sold Explorers, as well as people who had purchased them at other dealerships.

Lawsuits were flying.  It was estimated Ford settled 1500 lawsuits at a cost of 600 million dollars and Firestone set aside over 800 million dollars to settle the suits in which it was named, not counting a massive class-action suit that was filed.  The U.S. Congress started to investigate the Explorer/Firestone issue to see what was done and why it took so long.  Jac Nasser called me and asked if I could come to Washington to testify.  I went, ut was never called upon.

When the smoke cleared, 271 people died and another 823 were injured in Ford Explorers with Firestone tires on them, and that was just in the United States.  Ultimately, the government closed its investigation, coming to the same conclusion Ford did, that it was a tire issue.   

Still, the question lingered for me as to why Ford shouldered the financial burden of the huge recall, although later on in a settlement, Firestone reimbursed Ford a portion of what it was out.  Still, in my eyes, it made Ford look guilty when it was not.

Confidentially, I asked a Ford executive friend years later why Ford did the recall instead of Firestone, spending the 3 billion dollars.  The man, whom I will never identify, simply said: “sometime, look up who is in Bill Ford’s family.  The answer will come to you.”

Everybody knew Bill Ford was the great-grandson of Henry Ford, the founder of the company.  His father was William Clay Ford, Sr. What I did not know, however, was his mother’s maiden name was Martha Firestone.

Photo Credit: Ford

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15 Comments
  1. Curtis Bender 6 months ago

    Mom says, “Do the right thing”, son says, “Yes ma’am!”, end of story.

  2. Chris Krok 6 months ago

    Dang! WHAT A STORY, Jerry!!

  3. Robert Shannon 6 months ago

    Still wonder why these vehicles rolled with a blown tire. I have had several blowouts over the years and never come close to rolling. good story. For other reasons, I have never purchased a Ford. another story.

  4. Doug J. 6 months ago

    Jerry, great informational backstory on that sad distressing situation. Interesting that after covering initial recall costs for Firestone, Ford then went on to drop them from being the tire of choice on Ford vehicles. I have not seen a Firestone tire on a Ford in umpteen years.

  5. Michael Scott 6 months ago

    WOW, I had no idea…….I’m loving these stories, and this one takes the Top Spot so far……Thanks..!

  6. Ed Raney 6 months ago

    Jerry , enjoyed the rollover story . You know firestone also had a issue in 1967 with their ” Red Line ” tires on the muscle cars of that era . They recalled all of those and gave the customers of GTO’s , Chevelles , and other 5 new tires .

  7. Michael Usher 6 months ago

    Jerry, I appreciate the information about the Explorer/Firestone connection but one thing continues to bother me. Why so many rollovers? I know the Explorer has a higher CG than a car, but having had numerous blowouts during a driving experience that covers more than 55 years I never have gotten close to a rollover. So is the answer incompetent drivers with bad tires or was the vehicle part of the equation?

    • Amy Plemons 6 months ago

      Michael,

      Hard to say. All vehicles have gotten safer, and the huge majority of the rollovers occurred at highway speeds. I believe this would have happened with any SUV or van under the same circumstances. This was all before stability control and anti-rollover mitigation. If anything good came out of the Firestone mess, it made all automakers look at ways to make larger vehicles safer.

      Jerry Reynolds, President
      Car Pro Radio Network

  8. Joshua 6 months ago

    In the end its all money, family loyalty out the window. As the Fords die off, don’t be surprised if Ford Motor goes public, or merges with another company.

  9. Ron Ross 6 months ago

    Jerry, If Ford wasn’t guilty of anything, why did they redesign the 2002 model to be 2.5 inches wider, with lower suspension, independent rear suspension, with electronic stability control, and a recommended psi of 30?

    • Amy Plemons 6 months ago

      Not sure if it was connected or not, but Bill Ford himself told me in 2001, Ford was going to to be the first to make standard stability control on all SUVs, including Expedition, Escape, Explorer, Explorer Sport, and Excursion, even though only the Explorers had the issue, so I don’t think it was related to the tires.

      Jerry Reynolds, President
      Car Pro Radio Network

  10. Harold Ross 6 months ago

    I appreciate Jerry was new car dealer, but did he every know of any Explorer rolling over because of tires that had aftermarket tires installed? What brand of tires did Jerry replace the Firestones with? Was it an OEM tire or aftermarket specified?

    I never heard this technical reason for the Firestone tire failure (a glue problem). My question to you is why was it almost always the left rear tire that failed (lost pressure or blew out), when all the tires should have the probability of failure, and the front tires should have a higher load hence higher operation temperatures? Also I had heard that Ford at the last minute before starting production lowered the recommended tire pressure, (I don’t know if true, nor have I looked at the recommended tire pressure sticker on those vehicles to see if below the industry practice of 35 psi), but the argument of not a problem with the other source (Goodyear and others???) is not necessarily valid because every proprietary part (non MFG details specified, which tires would be one,) can have different sensitivities even though the functionality is the same. The parts have to be validated to pass OEM specified testing, and if the validation was done at different psi, then basically those tires were not validated as being durable or satisfactory performance at the new lowered pressure, and hence Ford could also be at risk. I never heard reasons that made sense to me, but my observations could be another reason why the Ford Corporation incurred some of the recall costs

    • Amy Plemons 6 months ago

      I don’t remember all the minute details from 18 years ago to be honest. I remember very well the findings that the glue on the Firestones was melting a high temperatures causing the blowouts, and it was irrefutable. There was also NHTSA data to show this was not happening with other brand tires. All this eventually came out but got little to know media attention because the crisis was long over. I don’t recall what brand tires we switched out the Firestones for, but I tend to think it was Goodyears and Michelins.

      Jerry Reynolds, President
      Car Pro Radio Network

  11. Gary Glenn 6 months ago

    Jerry,
    When I was in the Air Force my first new car was a 1977 Buick Regal with Firestone 500 tires. They also had issues resulting in a recall and new tires. My tires had 27,000 miles and I still was covered under the recall!

  12. Jimmie 6 months ago

    Thank you for your insight into this. These stories are so great to read. I recall the tires on my 2000 Ranger being replaced with Goodyear’s as part of the or an expansion of the recall.

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