As Ford Motor Co. struggled to line up 13 million replacements for the Firestone SUV tires it recalled, the automaker launched a public relations offensive on Wednesday to explain reasons behind the move that comes less than a year after certifying the tires as "world class."
The recall of Wilderness AT tires at a cost of $3 billion, as well as the public battle with Firestone over the safety of the Explorer, were causing a slump in the rest of Ford's business Wednesday. Several Wall Street analysts lowered their earnings estimates and financial outlook for the world's second-largest automaker.
"I think as long as this battle is going on in the press nobody is going to win,'' said Anne Sceia Klein, a Philadelphia public relations expert. "The general public will walk away from them if they can't sort it out.''
Ford dealers said customers appeared to be taking news of the recall calmly.
Ford CEO and President Jacques Nasser said Wednesday he was thrown off course by the letter he received Monday from Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe calling it quits after 95 years of working together.
"For that reason, we really haven't had a chance to develop a detailed plan in terms of migrating out of Firestone tires," Nasser told a gathering of securities and industry analysts Wednesday.
Nasser said discussions were underway with teams from Goodyear, Continental and Michelin to work on what he called a "phase-in plan."
The car manufacturer's efforts to explain the recall began Wednesday with full-page advertisements in national and regional newspapers. The ads said Firestone's Wilderness AT tires perform better than the tires that were recalled last year, but could experience increased failure rates in the future.
"Customer safety always has been — and always will be — our #1 priority," the ads read in large print, with the signatures of Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. and Nasser underneath.
The ads do not mention the claims Firestone has made in recent days questioning the safety of the Explorer, the most popular sport utility vehicle in the world. The Japan-based Bridgestone Corp. had said the Explorer suffers an unusual number of tire failures and has a high rate of rollovers in crashes, claiming Ford was ignoring the issue.
Nasser disputed Firestone's charges in a meeting with analysts Wednesday, saying the tire maker drew inaccurate conclusions and skewed the data to put the Explorer in the worst light. He also said federal data showed that the Explorer was less likely to roll over if one of its tires lost its tread than similar SUVs from other automakers.
"If you happen to be in a vehicle that had a tread separation, and that vehicle happens to be a compact SUV, you'd be much safer in an Explorer," Nasser said. "If those Firestone tires were on other SUVs, the rollover instance would be much worse."
The Explorer was awarded four of five possible stars by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in frontal impact crash tests, and five stars for side impact. The SUV scored two of five possible stars in NHTSA rollover ratings. No SUV scored more than three stars.
Unlike the recall last fall, Ford has no plans for television commercials with Nasser or anyone else, and plans to notify customers by direct mail instead, spokesman Ken Zino said Tuesday. Nasser did say Ford would soon post a Web site with data about the recall at www.tireinquiry.com, but that site was not active as of noon EST on Wednesday.
Lampe's letter ending the relationship was sent to Nasser after a Monday meeting at Bridgestone/Firestone's Nashville, Tenn., headquarters, where Ford officials presented data suggesting safety problems with Wilderness AT tires — part of the standard equipment on the Ford Explorer.
The staggering recall is double the one that made headlines last summer when Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, most of which were installed as original equipment on Ford Explorers. The federal government said the tires were linked to at least 170 deaths and more than 700 injuries. There have been several lawsuits filed.
This time around, millions of vehicle owners will be mailed notices outlining the procedure. Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers will switch the tires free of charge, while customers buying replacements at authorized dealers will be reimbursed either $110 or $130, depending on tire size.
Ford said the recall would cost $3 billion before taxes — $2.1 billion after taxes.
For the tire companies being courted to replace Firestone, the prospect is a double-edged sword.
"Original equipment contracts are notoriously non-profitable," because of pressure from automakers to lower prices, said Bob Ulrich, editor of Modern Tire Dealer magazine. But the increased exposure in the marketplace can be a valuable tool to promote a brand name, he said.
Ford spokeswoman Della DiPietro said any vehicles in production or in assembly plant storage lots awaiting delivery would be outfitted with replacement tires. Vehicles in transit to dealers would be retrofitted after they arrive.
Bridgestone/Firestone will continue to produce Wilderness AT tires for the replacement market as it has all along, spokeswoman Jill Bratina said.
The tires are installed on Ford Explorer, Expedition, Ranger, and some F-150 pickup trucks. More than 80 percent of the tires in question are on the Explorer sport utility vehicle.
The Ford/Firestone relationship began when Harvey Firestone agreed to supply tires for Henry Ford's Model T. Company ties became strained last summer amid reports that some Firestone tires could suddenly lose their tread.
"Firestone was an important part of my family," said Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., the great-grandson of Henry Ford and Harvey Fireston. "So on a personal level this is tough. To see this all taking place is deeply disturbing."
— The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report