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Firestone surrenders as hard-line strategy fails

WASHINGTON - Last week's decision by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to recall more tires labeled defective by the federal government was - at least on the surface - a retreat of epic proportions.

The tire maker originally took a hard line in the affair. It fired Ford Motor Co. as a customer and said the federal government would have to beat it in court to force a recall of its sport-utility tires. That threat was empty, and the strategy is in tatters.

But Scott Reed, chairman of Chesapeake Enterprises, one of the lobbying firms that advised Bridgestone/Firestone, disagreed.

He said the tough tactics - demonstrated by the company vow in July to fight to the last breath any recall beyond the 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires taken back since August 2000 - served a purpose.

"It got everyone to sit up and pay attention" to the company's claim that any further recall had to be based on sound science, Reed said.

Reed also contended that the attacks of Sept. 11 also were a contributing factor, compelling the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. to resolve their differences.

No negotiations

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson insisted there were no negotiations between the two sides. But it is unclear how many tires NHTSA wanted to recall in July when Bridgestone/Firestone CEO John Lampe made his vow to fight.

One veteran of automotive lobbying in Washington said last week the ultimate number, 3.5 million, reduced to fewer than 800,000 by Ford's ongoing voluntary replacement of 13 million tires, became something the tire company could swallow.

In addition, NHTSA presented exhaustive evidence in its Thursday, Oct. 4, defect investigation report that at least some additional number of tires was defective. It also updated its count of deaths attributed to Firestone tires to 271.

"Even if you win, the harm to your reputation and image is disastrous," said the automotive lobbying veteran about battles with government. She asked not to be named.

Meanwhile, Charles Brady, director of Credit Lyonnais in New York, said the Firestone brand probably still is going to die, but the company "will be in better shape politically and in terms of customer perception."

Declaring victory

Here is what happened last week:

Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. said it will recall nearly 800,000 of its Firestone Wilderness AT tires. The 15- and 16-inch tires were made before May 1998 and most were mounted on Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers.

NHTSA, which had determined that 3.5 million Wilderness AT tires made before May 1998 were defective and prone to tread separations, said in turn that it would close its formal investigation of Firestone tires, begun in early 2000.

The developments mean:

  • Troubled Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has taken a step toward putting the tire fiasco of the past year and a half behind it.

  • NHTSA is able to declare victory in taking more defective tires off the road without having to test in court its standards for finding tires faulty.

  • Ford Motor Co.'s hand is strengthened if it does seek reimbursement from Bridgestone/Firestone for tires it has been replacing voluntarily. The automaker also gains credibility in its claim that rollover crashes of the Explorer and Mountaineer were the fault of bad tires, not vehicle design.

    In May, Ford began replacing 13 million Wilderness AT tires on its vehicles because it said its research showed they were not reliable or durable enough.

    Apparently most if not all of the 3.5 million tires declared defective last week are among the 13 million Ford is replacing. Bridgestone/Firestone said it believes just 768,000 of the 3.5 million still are in service.

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