In a May evening in 2001, Jacques Nasser sat in his office at Ford Motor Co.'s world headquarters, faced with a choice that auto executives have come to see in their nightmares.
Rollover crashes caused by faulty Firestone tires on Ford SUVs had already killed more than 100 people, forcing Ford and Firestone to jointly recall 6.5 million tires the year before. Nasser, then Ford's CEO, had been briefed earlier that day by Ford engineers who determined that millions of Ford trucks had Firestone tires that weren't covered by the initial recall but were still prone to disintegrating at highway speeds.
The engineers' conclusion was grim: Eight or nine more people were likely to die in Ford vehicles that summer if the company did not act.
"It's a pretty easy decision, isn't it, Jason?" Nasser told Jason Vines, then Ford's head of public relations. "Recall the tires."
The tire crisis was a turning point for Ford. The recall of 13 million additional Firestone tires that May cost the company an estimated $2.1 billion and fractured its decades-old relationship with Firestone. Ford's brand image took a beating. And less than six months later, Nasser was ousted as CEO, replaced by a Ford heir whose family legacy was suddenly at stake.
It was also a defining episode in the history of auto recalls, spotlighting the huge costs -- financial and otherwise -- of letting a safety problem spiral out of control.