The Pressure's on for Ford and Firestone

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Kicking the tires may be the oldest ritual of car shopping, but the brand beneath the fender has never been a particular concern to a prospective car buyer. Styling, color, performance, safety and reliability are what sell autos.

And with that in mind, Ford has bought its tires from several sources, playing one company against the other to get the best price. Firestone has ended up as the biggest supplier, delivering about a third of its needs, due in part to a business relationship going back almost a century. In short, tires have always been taken for granted.

But now that somewhat cosy relationship has gone terribly wrong. Ford has been named in many of the slew of lawsuits revving up against Bridgestone/Firestone from Florida to Venezuela. It'll get plenty of attention from the four congressional investigators touring Bridgestone's Nashville headquarters. And the hottest SUV of the SUV decade, the Ford Explorer, now has a pungent association in the public mind with 62 deaths by SUV.

So, does Ford need a new tire supplier?

It's not that easy. There simply aren't enough factories to turn out the 11 million tires that Bridgestone/Firestone supplies to Ford each year. And Ford doesn't want to appear to be running from a situation where it has been accused of cutting corners with users' safety. For instance, Firestone has insisted that chronic underinflation — recommended by Ford for a smoother ride and more stability — contributed to the tires' premature demise. Though both companies insist they are working together, relations are strained like never before.

When Bridgestone/Firestone decided it needed a year to make a full recall, Ford immediately turned to Firestone rivals Goodyear and Michelin, and by Aug. 11 was issuing its dealers lists of alternative models of tires made by several Firestone rivals that would work as replacement tires. The list is now at 30.

As for a permanent turn away from Firestone, rest assured Ford is thinking about it. Customers may not pick a car based on its tires, but with every car company around trying to sell customers an SUV, the name Firestone underneath the fender could send a lot of prospective buyers walking — or demanding that their new vehicle come with a different set of wheels. That kind of squealing Ford doesn't need.