As Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. was working to repair the damage done to its brand during last year's Wilderness AT SUV tire recall, Ford Motor Co. calls in another 13 million Explorer tires, which prompts the tire manufacturer to sever its 100-year relationship with the automaker.

“Our tires are safe. When we have a problem, we admit it and we fix it. We've proven that,” says Bridgestone-Firestone Chairman John Lampe. “The real issue here is the safety of the Explorer. Ford refused to look at issues surrounding the Explorer in August. Ford failed to do that today.

“We stand by our tires and look forward to the opportunity to show Congress, NHTSA and the American public why our tires are safe and that there are significant safety concerns with the Ford Explorer,” Mr. Lampe states.

Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone — best friends, business associates and relatives through marriage — certainly would have found it painful to watch their successors before congressional committees blaming each other for the original recall of 6.4 million Firestone tires. Graves in Dearborn and Akron certainly are rumbling now that the companies are no longer in business together.

The result is that Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. yet again finds itself facing an image-rebuilding project that would make Bob Vila cringe.

The new recall brings the number of effected tires to 19.4 million, more than the 1978 recall of 7.5 million Firestone Steel Radial 500 ACTs (Advanced Concept Tire).

Yet damage has been done. And in 2001, safety sells like at no time in the auto industry's history.

“There's a foundation left,” says Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone-Firestone's director of brand and retail marketing for consumer tires. “We do have to rebuild. The biggest thing is the brand name has been tarnished. We have a task ahead of us to rebuild consumer confidence.”

Some Firestone dealers estimate that the rebuilding project could take as long as three years.

“I think time will heal it, but a full recovery is three to three and a half years away,” says Don Chaffin of Jackie Cooper Tires in Oklahoma City, OK, whose Firestone sales dropped as much as 75% across the board immediately after the first recall. “It's coming on better and better, but there's been a lot of unpleasant local media. Too many people think the Firestone product is just not what they want right now.”

Dee Beck, manager of market research for Bridgestone-Firestone, has been tracking consumer attitudes monthly since the first recall began. She says there was the expected decline in the first couple of months, but the company had witnessed double-digit improvement in the months prior to the second Ford recall.

Now, more than before, Firestone has become the industry's new “F” word.

In the midst of the first recall, the company distributed a brochure titled “Inflate, Rotate, Evaluate.” It was a consumer education piece that put in simple terms why consumers need to check their tires regularly and maintain them. In March and April, the second phase of that program will kicked off with dealers giving away tire gauges.

Then there's a full-blown ad campaign.

“The ad says we've gone back and we've looked at the way we did business and the way we manufactured tires,” says Mr. Pacsi. “We're changing things in our factory to make sure that we have quality steps in place, manufacturing steps in place so that this recall doesn't happen again. We are a new Firestone and we're doing things differently.”

He adds: “We are committed to rebuilding the brand and now I think people are waiting to hear what we're going to do.”