Wheelin’ and Dealin’

With new tires, Ford Explorer sales roll on.

November, 2000

It’s been more than three months since the Big Tire Recall began, rounding up 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness ATs across America, primarily from the wheels of Ford Explorers. Thousands of complaints had been reported, and the tires were said to have been responsible for at least a hundred deaths.

In the weeks following the recall announcement, Ford and Firestone executives repeatedly pointed fingers at each other. Were the Firestone tires faulty, or did Ford’s recommended underinflation create the danger?

With all the embarrassing publicity, you might expect both Firestone and Ford to have taken a beating in the marketplace. The truth is, only one did. Bridgestone, the Japanese parent company of Firestone, watched its stock hit an eight-year low in early September on the Tokyo market. In the same period, Ford’s stock dipped only slightly.

As it turned out, Explorer sales remained steady as the media continued their coverage of the ongoing story. According to ABCNEWS.com, Ford sold about 40,000 Explorers in August, making it number one on the charts of America’s best-selling SUVs, outperforming the Chevrolet Blazer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Pathfinder. Ford’s own figures indicated that August 2000 sales were down three percent from August of the previous year. A mere blip on the screen considering the circumstances.

Explorer sales didn’t suffer in Hawaii, either, according to local dealers. Mike McKenna, owner of Windward Ford/McKenna Motors, said that August and September were good months for the SUV.

“It was the tires, not the car,” he says, “and our customers knew that. People love the car.” The Explorer is a top-seller at Windward Ford, along with the Expedition, Taurus and Focus. Honolulu Ford owner Dave Chun said his dealership also experienced a drop in September, but he attributed it to a different cause. “We were in between model years,” he says. “They’ve stopped building the 2000 cars and started on the 2001 models.”

Chun said his dealership usually sells 20 to 25 Explorers a month. “I don’t think the tire recall had an effect on sales,” he says, “because in August we sold 20.” R.L. Polk and Company, which tracks car sales in the U.S., verified that, since the recall, new Explorer sales have held the line both in Hawaii and across the country. According to Polk’s figures, Hawaii car buyers purchase anywhere from 80 to 200 new Explorers every month.

ABCNEWS.com attributed the “resilient Ford” sales figures to customer loyalty, stating that “The Ford Explorer has one of the highest brand loyalties of any car on the road, and a five star safety rating from J.D. Power and Associates.” At some dealerships, sales dropped immediately after the recall but picked up again as soon as the dealers removed the Firestone tires from their Explorers.

The moral of this story: It takes more than a tire to blow out a car’s good reputation.

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John Wythe White