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Ford Expected to Lay Responsibility for Tire Problems on Bridgestone/Firestone

Aired September 6, 2000 - 1:12 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We also have with us our correspondent in Detroit, the bureau chief there, who covers automotive stories for us.

Ed, we've been hearing a lot about internal documents being released, will that be the crux of the questioning, of getting to the bottom of who knew what when?

ED GARSTEN, CNN DETROIT BUREAU CHIEF: It sure will, Lou. As a matter of fact, we spent over two hours yesterday at Ford world headquarters, were handed a sheaf of documents, some of which were correspondence.

These are letters between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, where tires that fell apart, that were shredded in Saudi Arabia, in Thailand and Malaysia. They were sent back to the United States to be analyzed by Bridgestone/Firestone.

I have a letter here from Bridgestone/Firestone that says, after analyzing a tire that fell apart, the person says: I didn't find any indication of a manufacturing defect of any of the tires, and all the damage to the tires resulted from unrepaired or improperly repaired punctures and damage from the accident sequence.

So what Ford, apparently, will attempt to do, is to defend itself on two levels: one, to say that it was, basically, snookered by Bridgestone/Firestone, that when they analyzed the tires, they wrote back to them and said: there's nothing wrong with the tires, that these tires were abused by the owners -- not used properly, not inflated properly.

One explanation was that, especially in Saudi Arabia, that people would deflate the tires on purpose to drive across the sand, and then when they reached the roads they were supposed to reinflate the tires, and a lot of them just didn't want to spend the time to do that. That's one defense.

The other defense is that, when Ford found out about the defects in the tires, they told Firestone to go ahead and recall the tires. Bridgestone/Firestone, according to Ford, refused to recall the tires.

So Ford is saying, you know what? We're victims here. We're Bridgestone/Firestone's customer. We got them to -- we've had this long relationship since 1906 to provide tires for us. We've had this long relationship, there's a familiar relationship there as well.

We trusted them, but they snookered us. When we knew about a defect in the tires, when they knew about a defect in the tires, they just didn't want to do anything about it, didn't want to report it to the government for fear of being forced into a very expensive recall -- Lou.

WATERS: Would you expect some especially hostile questioning here? We had, at the top of the program, Bill Townsend, who is the head of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications Trade and Consumer Protection, saying he's never, in all his life, seen a corporate entity in such denial as Firestone. That would suggest that, perhaps, Firestone's going to be under a lot of heat this afternoon.

GARSTEN: Well, it certainly looks at if Firestone is going to take the majority of heat on this. After all, they're the ones that built the tires.

And Ford, very successfully, in the last couple of weeks especially, has made a big PR push to say -- and the quote, the mantra you hear around the glass house, their headquarters in Dearborn: this is not a vehicle problem, it's a tire problem.

So they've fought it on the PR front. They've tried to fight it on the document front, putting the blame squarely on their longtime partner Bridgestone/Firestone.

WATERS: I'm going to ask you a question there that you may or may not know the answer to, But I was listening to "BURDEN OF PROOF" when one of the trial attorneys said that he has documents dating back to 1992, which is evidence that these tires were failing as far back as then.

The question how is: How is it possible that, today, in the new millennium, we still don't know what's making these tires fail? There's still some debate over that.

GARSTEN: I wish I could give you the definitive answer, and the one thing that both sides agree on is that nobody, at least publicly, seems to know what's making these tires fall apart.

All sorts of conjectures that there are manufacturing flaws, that Ford ordered the tires to be made more cheaply to cut costs -- you have to remember that Bridgestone/Firestone went through some terrible labor problems in the middle of the decade and they had replacement workers. Perhaps the work was shoddy because these people just didn't know how to do the work properly.

So there's all sorts of theories up in the air. And it's just a matter of trying to reconcile them into a definitive answer.

WATERS: What about the questions that many consumers are asking? Are there other tires that may not be up to safety standards?

We don't know the answer to that either, do we? GARSTEN: We sure don't, and several safety groups like, which is -- it helps out and advises many of the attorneys that are suing Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford, say that they believe that all of the tires produced in that era should be recalled; much further than the three models are being recalled, and much further than only the 15-inch tires.

They say even the 16-inch tires should be recalled as well, and that, of course, would be devastating to Firestone.

WATERS: All right, the report that was seen on the screen there before the subcommittees in the hearing room was an investigative report by KHOU, they are still looking at that.

As you know, the tire recall in the United States, according to "Time" magazine, if you read it this week, began in Texas, and we'll learn more about the chronology and how this massive tire recall happened to come about.

"The Anatomy of a Recall" is the title of the "Time" magazine article. Michael Weisskopf, one of the reporters on that, will be joining us this afternoon as we continue to follow developments up on Capitol Hill, as that hearing is about to begin.



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