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Ford-Firestone 'marriage' on the rocks

With recall of 6.5 million tires, a 100-year partnership dissolves into finger-pointing.

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One day in 1895 Henry Ford walked into the Columbus Buggy Works office in Detroit looking for better tires. The automobile he was tinkering with weighed 500 pounds - too much for the light bike tubes then available. An agent told Ford about the sturdy new pneumatic buggy tire his firm produced, and convinced the auto entrepreneur to order a set, sight unseen.

The agent's name? Harvey Firestone.

Thus was born one of the great power relationships of America's first industrial age. Firestone tires have shod Ford vehicles for more than 100 years. Like royal dynasties, the Firestone and Ford clans have even intermarried.

But this famous business partnership is now facing one of its greatest tests. Questions about the safety and quality of Firestone sport-utility and pickup tires have escalated into a full-blown crisis for the duo, with at least 6.5 million tires now under recall.

A corporate divorce doesn't seem imminent. But subtle finger-pointing has already begun - and if nothing else, Ford and Firestone appear to be having difficulty managing the public concerns stemming from the recall.

"It's clear that one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing," says Mark Braverman, a principal at CMG Associates, a Newton, Mass., crisis-management advisory firm.

For their part, Ford officials believe Firestone should have realized long ago that there was a problem with certain models of its Wilderness AT and ATX and ATX II tires. The tires are standard equipment on Ford Explorers and some Ford pickups.

History of complaints

On Sunday, Ford released documents showing that Firestone (now owned by the Japanese firm Bridgestone) had been receiving a disproportionate number of complaints about the tires in question since 1997. Furthermore, Ford fingered a particular Firestone plant, in Decatur, Ill. Many of the problem tires were manufactured there from 1994 to 1996, when the plant's United Rubber Workers union was on strike and replacement workers were running the line.

"When we looked at this data we said, 'There's something wrong here,' " said Ford spokesman Jason Vines during a conference call with reporters.

Underinflation and high temperatures also could have been factors in any failure of the tires.

Firestone officials say they are still studying Ford's analysis of their complaint data. They add that they do not believe the strike affected the quality of the Decatur plant's output.

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