On August 9, 2000, tire manufacturer Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. announces that it is recalling 6.5 million of its model ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires; the move comes two days after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration linked hundreds of accidents and at least 46 deaths to problems with the tread on the tires.
Founded by the Ohio-born Harvey S. Firestone, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company began manufacturing automobile tires in 1904 and put the first pneumatic (inflatable) tires on Ford Motor Company’s iconic Model T in 1908. Firestone’s sale of thousands of tires to Ford made it the top tire manufacturer in America, and Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford were close friends as well as business associates. Eight decades later, the company’s financial struggles led to its acquisition in 1988 by the Bridgestone Corporation of Japan, the world’s largest tire and rubber manufacturer. Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., based in Nashville, Tennessee, is Bridgestone’s U.S. subsidiary.
In May 2000, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a letter to both Ford and Firestone requesting information about the high incidence of tire failure on the popular Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle (SUV). Subsequent investigation by Ford revealed that the tread on the 15-inch ATX and ATX II models and Wilderness AT tires tended to peel off, resulting in very high failure rates. When the tires failed, the vehicles would roll over, sometimes killing their occupants. After extensive conversations with the NHTSA and Ford, Bridgestone/Firestone announced the recall of 6.5 million tires that August 9.
The recall began in Southern and Western states, as the problems seemed to be linked to hot weather. (A study published in May 2001 by The St. Petersburg Times found that at least 41 people died in Firestone-related accidents in Florida alone since 1997, more than reported by the NHTSA.) It would then move to other regions and would be complete by the following year. In addition to the recall, Bridgestone/Firestone also faced 50 lawsuits and a federal investigation relating to the problem, as questions lingered about how much both Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone knew about the problems, and for how long, before they acted. Bridgestone/Firestone, along with some observers, believed the problem was not just the tires but the design of the Explorer itself, which made it prone to tipping over. Ford fought back, saying it would replace all Wilderness AT tires at its own expense, including those not covered by the recall (a total of 13 million tires). Firestone responded by severing its relationship with Ford, ending an association that dated back almost 100 years.