Did Ford Cut Corners When the Explorer Couldn't?

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For Ford, the auto giant where "Quality is Job #1," August has been a very cruel month.

While dealing with the ongoing Firestone p.r. disaster (and watching its stock slip 10 percent), Ford had to close two plants making high-profit Ranger trucks just to free up replacement tires. The tire flap is growing: A tire expert and former Firestone/Bridgestone employee is calling for a widening of the recall to all sizes of the ATX series, and next month John McCain wants to drag everybody concerned in front of the Senate Commerce Committee for public hearings.

Now documents, first reported in the Los Angeles Times, are on the loose that make Ford — which practically resurrected the American-built car with its safe and reliable Taurus, and has positioned itself as the greenest of the American auto behemoths — sound like just the kind of big, heartless, profit-driven company Al Gore says he's gunning for.

Ten years ago, when the Ford Explorer was about to make its debut, Ford discovered it had a problem: In internal tests, the Explorer notched a worse rollover rate than rival Chevy's Blazer, and worse even than — gasp — its own notoriously tipsy Bronco II. The Explorer "must at least be equivalent to the [Bronco II] in these maneuvers to be considered acceptable for production," a Ford engineer wrote in a 1989 memo. Something had to be done; this was to be a family car.

But what? Widen the track width? Lengthen the wheel base? Both rejected by Ford honchos as too time-consuming and expensive, what with a February 1990 production date to meet. Instead, they settled on tweaks: bringing the vehicle slightly closer to the ground, stiffening the front suspension springs — and recommending to customers that they let some air out of the tires, keeping them at 26 psi rather than Firestone's own target of 30 psi.

Lower tire inflation gives a better grip on the road, a softer ride and, yes, a touch more stability, but it's also hell on tires. It's unclear whether that contributed to the blowouts responsible for 62 deaths, although at least one lawsuit now says it did. (Ford was also putting Goodyear tires on its Explorers then, and they apparently have fared fine.) Adding to the problems: It stands to reason that a more stable SUV would have handled those blowouts better, and saved some lives in the process.

Like the Taurus, the Explorer has been a Ford flagship, going on to become the best-selling SUV of all time and the icon of the automotive decade defined by these gas-guzzling kings of the road. Ford has also become something of a flagship car company, navigating the new economy skillfully, progressively and profitably while avoiding some of the exploding-gas-tank embarrassments that have plagued rival GM. Now it's got to keep the bloom on the rose and its SUVs flying off the lots.

It could take a couple of years. There's a new version of the Explorer coming out, touted as having a host of safety and stability improvements, including a longer wheelbase and wider track width. But that's not until 2002, and with canny lawyers buying spots at the top of Internet search results for "Firestone" and "Ford," the road ahead looks pretty bumpy at the moment.