Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone -- best friends and business associates -- would have found it painful to watch their successors before congressional committees blaming each other for the recall of 6.4 million Firestone tires on Ford Explorer SUVs linked to a rash of rollover accidents after the vehicles’ tires shredded.

In the end, the tire supplier took the obligatory "hit" for the automaker and now Bridgestone-Firestone Inc. is faced with rebuilding its brand and customer confidence -- not that Ford got out of the mess unscathed.

"One hundred years of history is hard to walk away from," says Phil Pacsi, director of brand and retail marketing for Bridgestone-Firestone consumer tires. "We supply 40% of Ford's business. They are our largest customer and we're eager to keep our largest customer."

One way Ford Motor Co. hopes to quell consumer fears about the Explorer-Firestone combination is offering tire options to its Explorer customers.

A Ford spokesman says a "small percentage" of 2001 Explorers were equipped with Goodyear tires.

On 2002 model year vehicles, customers will have a choice of Firestone, Michelin or Goodyear tires. Customers can decide when they buy the car what kind of tires they want. They ultimately will decide the percentage that each tire maker gets, the automaker says.

"Obviously our relationship with Ford has been tested," says Bridgestone-Firestone spokeswoman Susan Sizemore. "But we continue to work with them and will continue to work with them."

Meanwhile, General Motors Corp. will announce this summer how many of its 2002 vehicles will switch from Firestone brand tires to their corporate cousin Bridgestone, due to concerns from customers.

Although last August's recall didn't affect GM vehicles, buyers apparently have questions about the safety of the Firestone brand.

Firestone tires currently are standard equipment on 19 of GM's 56 product offerings. Only one comes with Bridgestone rubber.

A GM spokesman says the automaker doesn't have deep concerns about Firestone tires, but adds that the recall has influenced the marketplace.