If you look at Ford Explorer sales since 2000, you could conclude that Ford Motor Co. rebounded quickly and almost painlessly from one of the most wrenching episodes in its 100-year history, the Firestone tire fiasco.
But you would be wrong.
Sure, the Explorer nameplate is stronger than almost everyone expected after the company's mainstay SUV was in hundreds of rollover crashes linked to Firestone tire failures.
But the tragic episode, which surfaced publicly in the spring and summer of 2000, continues to have profound effects.
The industry will be contending for years with a wave of safety regulations spawned by the controversy. Courts still are untangling lawsuits and appeals. The deep and bizarre rift that opened between Ford Motor and Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. has not fully healed. And the episode changed lives inside Ford as well.
"It was a very sad time in the history of Ford and Firestone," says Sue Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering.
Adds Jason Vines, former Ford vice president for communications: "There were a lot of tears along the way."
Sometimes, he says, the Ford officials' tears were not from self-pity or from the exhaustion of long hours of seeking replacement tires but rather for the fate of customers who didn't get new tires in time.
Vines recalls hearing the story of one customer who, while waiting for the right style of replacement tires to be delivered, was in a crash linked to a tire-tread separation, and her child was injured severely.
"A few of us sat around the room, and it was pretty misty-eyed," Vines says. "You were saying, 'God, give us a break here.' "
Indeed, the episode rattled Ford Motor Co. from top to bottom.
In the summer of 2000, Ford CEO Jacques Nasser still was a high-flying executive. While it would be wrong to say that he lost his job solely because of the Firestone-Explorer imbroglio, the Firestone case did mark the point when things started to change for him.
"What Firestone did was it put a magnificently huge magnifying glass over the company," Vines says.
What people subsequently saw, reflected in repeated recalls of new models such as the Focus and Escape, were serious flaws in the company's product development and launch procedures.
Even the first of the redesigned 2002 Explorers came out with tires damaged by assembly line equipment.
"On that one we had to laugh, because otherwise we had to cry," Vines remembers.
"Pretty soon they blamed Jacques for everything," says Vines, one of Nasser's last defenders at Ford before Nasser was ousted as CEO in October 2001. Vines himself resigned under pressure at the same time.
The Firestone-Explorer mess became a catalyst for unleashing forces that had been building not only within the company but across the industry.
Publicity surrounding the Firestone-Explorer incidents gave unstoppable momentum to comprehensive safety legislation in Congress. The so-called TREAD Act was signed into law in late 2000.
So automakers, suppliers and others are coming to grips with new requirements that they install tire pressure monitors, toughen testing of new tires, vastly increase safety data reporting to the government and test vehicles for rollover propensity, to name just a few provisions.
Cischke calls the requirements a mixed bag.
She says rollover testing and tougher tire performance standards likely will be beneficial. But she says the additional reporting by manufacturers on how their products are doing in the field will overwhelm the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with data. Ford alone will be providing 80,000 bits of information each quarter.
Cischke had a unique perspective on the unfolding drama. She became a player between Act 1 and Act 2.
Preparing for the retirement of Ford Vice President Helen Petrauskas, the company hired Cischke away from DaimlerChrysler. She arrived after 6.5 million tires were recalled, beginning in August 2000. But she came on board before Ford decided in May 2001 to replace 13 million more tires at an estimated cost of $3 billion.
"I used to kid with some of the guys: 'Gosh, I should have asked one more question in the interview,' " says Cischke, now 49.
She told Ford engineers, who insisted that crashes were being caused by bad tires and not by a flawed vehicle design: "Prove it to me."
Ultimately, NHTSA would agree that the Explorer did not handle appreciably differently from other SUVs and that some Firestone tires were defective. Further, Ford has denied critics' charges that the automaker's own cost-cutting contributed to tire flaws.
Cischke says her main regret is that a war of finger-pointing and recrimination had unfolded between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone - companies that were tied together not only by a century of doing business together but also by blood.
A grandson of Henry Ford and a granddaughter of Harvey Firestone are the parents of Bill Ford, the Ford Motor chairman.
Cischke says: "I look back on that and think, boy, so much could have been better had the first summer not been quite such a volleying back and forth of stuff. Overall I think there were things we would do differently.
"They (Bridgestone/Firestone) are a very good company," she adds in a conciliatory tone.
Vines isn't buying it. He says Ford's goals were to take care of the customers, find replacement tires and be honest. But, he says, "the Scud missiles" of misinformation kept flying from Bridgestone/Firestone.
"Then, what did Firestone do? Of course, they 'fired' Ford," Vines says.
In 2001, Bridgestone-Firestone CEO John Lampe, angered by Nasser's 13 million tire recall, proclaimed that his company would stop supplying tires to Ford. The last tire in the U.S. market was shipped quietly in March 2003.
Vines contends that Ford executives, some of them now deposed, did a heroic thing by recalling all the suspect tires, despite the absence of proof that all of them were defective.
"In the summer of 2001, nobody died" in Explorer crashes related to tread separations, he says. "We knew it (more dying) was going to happen unless we acted."