One day in 1895 Henry Ford walked into the Columbus Buggy Works office in Detroit looking for better tires. The automobile he was tinkering with weighed 500 pounds - too much for the light bike tubes then available. An agent told Ford about the sturdy new pneumatic buggy tire his firm produced, and convinced the auto entrepreneur to order a set, sight unseen.
The agent's name? Harvey Firestone.
Thus was born one of the great power relationships of America's first industrial age. Firestone tires have shod Ford vehicles for more than 100 years. Like royal dynasties, the Firestone and Ford clans have even intermarried.
But this famous business partnership is now facing one of its greatest tests. Questions about the safety and quality of Firestone sport-utility and pickup tires have escalated into a full-blown crisis for the duo, with at least 6.5 million tires now under recall.
A corporate divorce doesn't seem imminent. But subtle finger-pointing has already begun - and if nothing else, Ford and Firestone appear to be having difficulty managing the public concerns stemming from the recall.
"It's clear that one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing," says Mark Braverman, a principal at CMG Associates, a Newton, Mass., crisis-management advisory firm.
For their part, Ford officials believe Firestone should have realized long ago that there was a problem with certain models of its Wilderness AT and ATX and ATX II tires. The tires are standard equipment on Ford Explorers and some Ford pickups.
History of complaints
On Sunday, Ford released documents showing that Firestone (now owned by the Japanese firm Bridgestone) had been receiving a disproportionate number of complaints about the tires in question since 1997. Furthermore, Ford fingered a particular Firestone plant, in Decatur, Ill. Many of the problem tires were manufactured there from 1994 to 1996, when the plant's United Rubber Workers union was on strike and replacement workers were running the line.
"When we looked at this data we said, 'There's something wrong here,' " said Ford spokesman Jason Vines during a conference call with reporters.
Underinflation and high temperatures also could have been factors in any failure of the tires.
Firestone officials say they are still studying Ford's analysis of their complaint data. They add that they do not believe the strike affected the quality of the Decatur plant's output.
Workers have been more blunt. Many have said that design or engineering flaws may have contributed to tire failures - and that Ford helped Firestone engineers on the tires' designs.
Auto-safety activists in Washington agree to some extent with the Firestone workers. "Ford is doing its level best to point fingers elsewhere," says Clarence Ditlow, of the Center for Auto Safety.
Any quality problems at Decatur would have affected the plant's entire output, says Mr. Ditlow - not just certain models. And he says that during the design process for the tires at issue, Ford urged they be made to produce a softer ride, to mask sport-utility vehicles' truck heritage.
A run on tires
Meanwhile, details of the recall itself - the second-largest tire recall in history - are causing consternation across the country.
Ford and Firestone are trying to give higher priority to the hot-weather states where tire failures have been concentrated. Eighty-five percent of AT and ATX problems have occurred in Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas.
But worried consumers are flooding Ford dealers and Firestone stores throughout the nation, due to the widespread publicity given the recall. At least one state attorney general - Charlie Condon of South Carolina - has already filed suit against Bridgestone/Firestone in an effort to move his state higher on the recall priority list.
And some plaintiffs' lawyers and consumer activists are calling for the recall to be expanded to include all 15- and 16-inch Wilderness AT tires, made in all Firestone factories.
"Frankly I can't think of a more poorly managed recall," says Ditlow.
Ford and Firestone officials say they are simply trying to steer their limited available quantity of replacement tires to the most affected areas, to maximize safety gains.
In the end the recall could cost Firestone upwards of $350 million. A previous massive recall in 1978 so weakened the firm that it did not recover until Bridgestone bought it a decade later. But Bridgestone has deep pockets - it controls much of the lucrative Japanese market - and so the Firestone brand's existence is not likely at stake.
If Ford moves to greater reliance on other suppliers, the automaker's current chairman is likely to have mixed feelings. William Clay Ford Jr. is the son of Henry Ford's grandson, William Clay Ford, and Harvey Firestone's granddaughter, Martha Parke Firestone.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society