DETROIT -- The auto industry has a small graveyard of mistakes bearing names such as Pinto, Corvair and Edsel. Is Firestone next?
The recall of 6.5 million tires linked to 88 deaths and the resulting attention has strained Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s relations with car owners and its largest buyer, Ford Motor Co.
Auto dealers say customers are leery of Firestones, even on vehicles not affected by the recall. Independent tire dealers also report slower Firestone sales.
Firestone spokesman Dan Adomitis said that the company had not had a chance to assess how the recall is affecting the rest of its business and understood that customers might have some concerns because of the recall.
"But the basic perspective is that Firestone has been a staple brand for 100 years and we expect it to continue," Adomitis said.
The Firestone name dates back to the early days of the American auto industry and twines around the roots of Ford. The Model T rode on Firestones, and Henry Ford's great-grandson, who is chairman of his company today, is also Harvey Firestone's great-grandson.
But Ford president and CEO Jacques Nasser has said the recall threatens the company's business with Firestone. Ford said last week that it was in talks with Goodyear to supply tires for the 2002 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer sport utility vehicles, which until now have worn only Firestones.
Nasser said the relationship with Firestone would be taken "a day at a time," and that if Ford customers weren't happy with Firestone tires Ford would do what it takes to make them happy.
"The short-term impact is devastating, particularly for Firestone," Nasser said a week ago. "How they recover and what their long-term outlook is, is something that Firestone will need to evaluate very, very carefully."
Ford dealers say some customers are rejecting Firestone tires on new vehicles. Ford said about 10 percent of Explorer sales in August involved tire swaps.
Mike Miles, general manager of Banner Ford in Decatur, Ga., says the dealership tries to reassure buyers that Firestone tires on new vehicles are safe.
"But if a customer says to me 'I'll buy, but not with those tires,' if I don't change them the next dealer will," he said. "I don't want to lose the sale."
General Motors Corp. has given its dealers a letter assuring buyers that GM vehicles with Firestone Wilderness tires have different engineering standards than the tires used on Ford SUVs, different recommended pressures and are not affected by the recall.
"We have certainly heard from dealers that customers are concerned," GM spokesman Terry Sullivan said.
Independent dealers say Firestone's business has suffered there as well.
"It's not a surprise that people aren't coming in asking for Firestones," said Sandi Hveem, a spokeswoman for the Discount Tire chain. "They're taking off Firestones and asking for any other products."
Among the concerned customers is Gerald Surprenant of Traverse City, Mich. After seeing news reports about the possible problems, the retired Ford safety engineer checked the Firestone Wilderness ATs on his 1999 Explorer and found a line of small cracks just above the tread on the sidewalls of the driver's side tires.
But his Explorer still has those tires, which were made in Canada and are not covered by the recall.
Surprenant says he'll likely pay to get them replaced. Even though his father sold Firestone tires for 30 years, "I won't consider Firestones at all."
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