In 1990, the Ford Explorer began to lead one of the greatest automotive revolutions in history. With its robust styling, impressive versatility, and four-wheel drive practicality, the Explorer quickly became an all-star in the budding SUV market. Despite nearly 30 years of production, the Ford Explorer is still one of the most ubiquitous vehicles on sale today in North America. It has become a vehicle of choice for both football moms and law enforcement.
But the Explorer’s epic popularity belies a troubled history. Although largely forgotten about today, the Ford Explorer was once an infamous effigy of corporate malfeasance. Its early years were marred by a disturbing failure of both engineering and corporate responsibility; one which ended a 95-year old relationship between two American automotive giants.
The story begins back in 1906, six years after Harvey Firestone founded his eponymous Firestone Tire and Rubber company. Firestone was personal friends with Henry Ford, who chose to outfit Firestone tyres to his new Model T. Having supplied the rubber for the most influential car of all time, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company would form a seemingly indelible partnership with the Ford Motor Company.
Then, in 1990, the two allies unwittingly set the stage for what was to become the most controversial recall of the early 21st century. That year, Ford began producing its now-legendary Explorer for the first time. Once again, Ford used tyres made by Firestone, who had recently been acquired by the Japanese tyre manufacturer Bridgestone.
Ultimately, the Explorer’s versatility, four-wheel drive practicality and iconic styling made it an all-star in the fledgling SUV market. Not only was the Explorer a favourite among suburban families, it was popular among off-road enthusiasts who wanted a toy that could also serve as a cushy daily driver. Despite being in production for nearly 30 years, the Explorer is still one of Ford’s strongest sellers in the North American market. However, the first versions of the Explorer were tainted by a series of engineering and corporate failures that forever damaged the reputations of both Ford and Firestone.
In order to understand the early Explorer’s bad reputation, it helps to understand its handling characteristics. Having driven an older Explorer, I feel confident that a drunken giraffe could handle a set of corners more confidently. It’s heavy, has a high centre of gravity, and awfully sloppy steering. As far as early SUVs were concerned, this was par for the course. However, the Explorer featured a twin I-beam front suspension that was supposed to offer better stability than the live axle setup that was offered in the Jeep Cherokee. This early form of independent front suspension gave the Explorer a smoother ride, but the extra comfort came with some drawbacks. Any vertical movement of the suspension (e.g. going over a bump) would upset the wheel’s camber angle to some extent, resulting in reduced high-speed stability and increased rollover danger. This phenomenon was similar to what was infamously experienced by the first-generation Chevrolet Corvair.
This deficiency in the Explorer’s front-end stability contributed, in part, to rollovers in preproduction testing. Engineers recommended that the design of front suspension be modified. Instead, Ford decided to correct the instability in the same way that Chevrolet fixed the Corvair’s handling issues: by running the Explorer with a lower front tyre pressure than usual. This jury-rig solution seemed to work, and the Explorer’s front-end stability was sufficiently improved. It did, however, come with a price: the lower pressure would reduce the durability and lifespan of the tyre.
Initially, engineers at Ford and Firestone believed that they had solved the Explorer’s stability problems. In 2000, Firestone made a slight modification to the design of their tyres. They added a nylon cap to the tyre’s belted radial to give extra strength to the tread. At first, it looked like a routine design upgrade. What the public did not know, however, was that both Ford and Firestone were under pressure from investigations by the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) and U.S. Congress.
Between 1990 and 2000, the NHTSA received a large number of complaints regarding tyre failures on Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT model tyres. Ford did their own investigation into the matter, and confirmed that the Firestones were suffering from alarmingly high failure rates. Despite this knowledge, a special committee formed by the U.S. Senate found evidence that Ford and Firestone did not inform the NHTSA of the problem. It was estimated that, as a result of the problems with Firestone tyres, over 200 people died in accidents brought on by tread separation.
For Ford and Firestone, the consequences were staggering. Widespread recalls were issued, and both companies were inundated with lawsuits. Although tread separations had occurred on Explorers fitted with tyres made by other manufacturers, the damage to Firestone’s reputation was so severe that they were forced to shut down their Decatur, Illinois production facility in 2001. For the 2002 redesign of the Explorer, Ford outfitted the Explorer with a much-improved four-wheel independent suspension. That move may have been too little, too late for Ford. Their reputation was damaged as they were accused of knowingly selling an unsafe vehicle, much like they did with the infamous Pinto 20 years earlier.
The damage done to the relationship between Ford and Firestone was even more profound. After 95 years of supplying Ford with tyres, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company ended their partnership with Ford Motor Company, citing a lack of trust in the company. It was a dramatic ending to an alliance that began from a personal friendship between two of America’s most prominent automotive pioneers.