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Ford Was Aware About Explorer Safety Concerns, Documents Show

By Myron Levin
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Rushing to meet a production deadline a decade ago, Ford Motor Co. rejected major design changes that would have made its Explorer sport-utility vehicle less prone to rolling over, relying instead on smaller changes and reduced tire pressures to lower the risk, according to internal company documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

That decision may backfire on Ford, since reduced pressure may have contributed to a rash of tire failures and the recent recall of an estimated 6.5 million Firestone tires, most of them original equipment on Explorers and other SUVs.

The suspect tires have been linked to hundreds of reports of tread separations and at least 54 deaths -- mostly involving Ford Explorers that rolled over or crashed when their tires failed at highway speeds.

Even if the blame lies squarely with defective tires, Ford could still face liability for marketing a vehicle that, like other SUVs, was prone to roll over if the tires, for any reason, happen to fail.

The Ford documents, which have been produced in lawsuits, show that as the launch date for the Explorer fast approached, company engineers were still struggling to verify that the new model would be less tipsy than Ford’s Bronco II, the rollover-prone SUV that the Explorer was about to replace.

Months before the launch, a prototype of the Explorer had failed badly in rollover tests, lifting two wheels off the ground in five out of 12 steering maneuvers meant to gauge the rollover risk.

According to the documents, a rival Chevy S-10 Blazer had passed easily, keeping all of its wheels on the ground in six test runs. Even worse, the prototype was outperformed on the test by a 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.

Determined not to let a February 1990 production date slip, Ford officials spurned some proposals for stability improvements, such as widening the Explorer’s track width, the documents show. The company tweaked the vehicle in other ways, however, to satisfy itself that the Explorer would be at least marginally more stable than the Bronco II.

Among “handling strategies” to improve stability was “tire pressure reduction,” one memo said.