Jolted by customer and factory squabbling in one of the most publicized recall crises of modern times, Ford dealers are taking remedial action to protect their reputations and that of the products they sell, particularly the segment-leading Explorer SUVs.

Ford's decision to allow Explorer owners to choose their replacement tire brands - an industry first - was welcomed by dealer leaders, like Jerry Reynolds and Bob Tasca Sr.

They also say that the faster tires are replaced on affected Explorers, the better for all concerned.

Says Mr. Reynolds, National Ford Dealer Council chairman, "Bridgestone/Firestone will take a hit image-wise, but we as dealers simply will have no choice but to respond to customer demand and give them whatever they want, when they want it.

"The steps Ford is taking to get us tires as soon as possible should put us in good shape."

The Ford dealer council is expected to recommend that Ford follow GM's lead in issuing tire warranties on all new models and help dealers aggressively enter the tire installation and repair business.

Approximately 2,900 of Ford Division's 4,100 U.S. dealers have been approved as tire centers, Mr. Reynolds says.

"But too many customers... had to be sent to tire stores and that hurt customer satisfaction," he says. "We should not have to ship Ford owners elsewhere for service, particularly in a recall situation which has so many owners full of fear and rage."

Mr. Tasca was one of the first Ford dealers to enter the tire business at his Ford store in East Providence, RI, and Lincoln Mercury dealership in Seekonk, MA.

He says, "If Ford and Firestone had acted when they first learned of a rollover problem in Saudi Arabia, they would have headed off all this current trouble.

"There was too much hesitation and hush-hush. Now we're changing customers' Firestone tires whether they have the defect code or not, because I want to keep customers happy whatever the cost.

"But it's unfortunate that so many Ford dealers ran out of tires and weren't even in the tire business, as Ford tried to get them to do with their optional `Around the Wheels' campaign. Sending customers off to a tire store was why I got into tires 20 years ago."

However, in mid-September, Ford dealers in major markets such as Detroit and Dallas, where Mr. Reynolds' Prestige Ford is located, were overwhelmed fielding customer demands, and so were forced to refer customers to independent tire stores with various brands.

"We are totally dry of tires," says a service advisor at Varsity Ford, Ann Arbor, MI. He tells callers to visit either of two Belle Tires shops in the Ann Arbor area.

Ford and its embattled supplier, Bridgestone/Firestone, are struggling over 15-hour days and weekends to expedite recall of 6.5 million tires in time for a self-imposed "deadline" of Thanksgiving set by Ford president and CEO Jacques A. Nasser.

His public profile and statements in the crisis were criticized by some Ford dealers who declined to be named. One of them, a Florida dealer, says Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. should have been front and center.

"I admire Jac as a leader but his Australian accent and the fact he did these TV spots in his building aren't as effective as they could have been if the company chairman, named Ford, had done them at a Ford dealership," says the dealer.

A Ford spokesman explains that Mr. Ford, whose mother is a granddaughter of tire company founder Harvey Firestone, believes Mr. Nasser would be more credible doing the commercials and appearing at Congressional hearings because of his expertise in technical matters and his operational role.

Mr. Ford recently said he'll play a more active role in the matter.

Mr. Nasser's future was a matter of intense discussion among Ford dealers, nevertheless, as the scandal unfolded and Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone dueled over who was to blame.

Though Explorer sales in August remained atop the full-size SUV segment, as they had almost steadily since its 1991 debut, softness was showing up in September, dealers report.

Until the company announced that future Explorer buyers could choose other tire brands, many dealers worried that competitors could make inroads.

"My Chevy, GMC and Jeep dealer friends are talking up Explorer problems already, not that they have to with all the media hype," says Tony Moore, a salesman for Nichols Ford, Fort Worth, TX. "And Explorer resale values aren't going to be helped if this keeps staying on page one."

Lawsuits by families of Explorer rollover victims could keep the story alive indefinitely, dealers fear, adding to the SUV's perception problems and salability.