In a bid to avert embarrassing product recalls, Ford Motor Co. will hold newly built 2002 Ford Explorers at the factory until early February.
Ford began building the new Explorer in limited quantities at its Louisville, Ky., assembly plant in November.
The carmaker wants to avoid more of the product recalls that have dogged the company recently. For example, the Ford Escape has been recalled five times since its August launch. Dealers fear customers will bolt to other brands.
Ford will slow the Explorer production ramp-up, add technical engineers from suppliers to the launch team and retain newly built Explorers at the factory to ensure quality, the company said last week.
'We want these vehicles to be absolutely immaculate when they leave our hands,' said Martin Inglis, vice president of Ford North America. 'We are holding them in the yard so that in the unlikely event there is an issue that we discover, we are not chasing all over the place trying to find it.'
The 2002 model is the first substantial redesign of the 10-year-old Explorer.
A total of 376 units were assembled last week. Production begins at a second plant in St. Louis in January. Ford did not disclose the number of units expected to be held.
Shipments to dealers will begin in the second half of February, the company said.
Ford wants to mimic the successful launch of the Ford Transit in Europe, Inglis said. Ford will not move to the next launch stage until problems have been corrected, Inglis said.
'It is going to be a much slower ramp-up than originally planned,' said Jim O'Connor, Ford Division president.
The Explorer actions are part of a broader effort by Ford to improve quality and reduce vehicle recalls. The Ford Division National Dealer Council has made correcting the problem its top priority this year.
Last week, Jerry Reynolds, dealer council chairman, and other dealers met with Ford executives to discuss fixing Ford's quality problems.
'We left feeling much better about their plan. I think we'll see a huge turnaround in this area,' said Reynolds, owner of Prestige Ford in Garland, Texas.
As many as 75 percent of Ford's recently recalled vehicles were more than 2 years old, O'Connor said, citing recent efforts to boost quality of newer vehicles. Ford also is recalling units more quickly, even for reasons not related to safety, he said.
That practice results from the company's heightened sensitivity to product quality in the wake of the massive Firestone tire recall this year and Ford's mandate to be a customer-focused company, O'Connor said. In August, Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires, many of them mounted on Ford Explorers.
Said O'Connor: 'Perhaps in the past, if it wasn't a safety recall, we may have said, `We will have the dealer handle it later on.' '