Ford, Firestone faced much worse in '78 The 1978 editorial cartoon still is remembered by a few veteran automotive journalists: Two cops stand next to a burned-out Ford Pinto with four flat tires. "The guy was driving a Pinto with Firestone 500 tires," one cop says to the other. "We ruled it a suicide."

It was a very bad year for Ford Motor Co. and Firestone Corp.

Early in 1978 a jury made a $128 million judgment against Ford (quickly knocked down on appeal to $6 million) in a case where a man was burned when his Pinto caught fire after being hit from behind. With Pintos linked to more than 60 deaths and under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA) Ford agreed to recall 1.4 million of the popular economy cars made from 1971-1976 in June and make fixes to their fuel tanks.

Then on Sept. 12, Ford was indicted on three counts of "reckless homicide" and one count of "criminal recklessness" by an Elkhart County, IN, grand jury after three teenage girls died when their Pinto caught fire after being hit from the rear by a van traveling at high speed. At one point monthly sales of new '78 Pintos - which had redesigned fuel tanks - were down as much as 45% compared with year-earlier totals.

Meanwhile Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. - a major Ford supplier, as it is now - was being pressured by NHTSA to recall Firestone 500 tires that were prone to tread separation problems and linked with dozens of injuries and deaths. It reluctantly agreed late in the year to recall 7.5 million tires - and later millions more.

Now, once again, two of the oldest names in the auto industry are together in the headlines in a safety controversy. Now named Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., after being purchased by Japan's Bridgestone in 1988, the tiremaker is recalling 6.5 million tires - most of them mounted on Ford Explorers - because of reports the tire treads can separate and pull off. The tires are linked to 88 deaths and more than 1,400 accidents in the U.S. in the past decade.

To make matters worse for the companies, it's happening in a politically charged election year, in an environment where the public is growing more suspicious of big corporations - from makers of pharmaceuticals and oil companies to automakers.

Most notably, the chairman of Mitsubishi Motors Corp. recently resigned following a scandal involving 20 years of corporate misconduct regarding safety problems.

The situation also is amplified not only by the media, but also on the Internet, which enables plaintiffs' attorneys to gather information and locate potential clients faster than ever before. Plus the attention is drawing new charges and reviving old product liability claims to the companies like a magnet.

Among the new headaches:

* Business Week magazine reports that U.S. officials have received at least 12 complaints on tires made by Bridgestone Corp., the Japanese parent of Bridgestone/Firestone. The magazine reports that NHTSA received complaints about blistering, bubbling and bulging sidewalls on Bridgestone Potenza RE040 radial tires on '00 model Audi S4 sedans. A Bridgestone/Firestone spokeswoman downplays the complaints, and a NHTSA spokesman says there is no investigation into Audi S4 tires.

* Millions of other tires made by Bridgestone/Firestone under different labels now are coming under scrutiny.

* USA Today reports that Ford is informally investigating possible tread separation problems on 16-in. Continental tires used on Lincoln Navigator SUVs in Saudi Arabia. A Ford spokesman confirms the company received four claims of possible tread separation problems in 1999 and two this year. "What's transpiring here is a result of the Firestone situation. It's unfortunate, but we accept (that Ford officials) are looking hard" at all reports, a spokesman for Continental General Tire tells the paper.

* Venezuela's National Assembly voted unanimously in mid-September to open an investigation into whether products made by Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were responsible for 46 deaths in the country.

* The tire controversy has sparked more scrutiny from government regulators on a variety of safety-related issues. It also is enabling product liability attorneys to raise the visibility of old cases that have not been getting much media attention. The latest is a class action lawsuit involving allegedly defective ignition modules on 22 million Fords made in the 1980s and 1990s.

* An increasingly defensive Bridgestone/Firestone is pointing the finger at Ford, arguing that Ford's recommended tire inflation pressures for the Explorer are too low and led to tire failures and crashes. A brief survey of inflation pressures recommended on competitive vehicles such as the Chevrolet Blazer/Jimmy and Jeep Grand Cherokee reveals they are 6 psi to 9 psi higher.

Ford and Firestone eventually overcame the damage to their reputations in the 1978 debacles, but it took years, and the toll was devastating to their profits, workers and shareholders. Can they put these problems behind them more easily this time?

So far, Ford, which insists there is no problem with its trucks - that it is strictly a tire problem - has not been hurt severely in sales, although its stock has taken a beating on Wall Street.

A mid-September poll by Reuters Zogby finds that most consumers blame Bridge-stone/Firestone for the safety problems, not Ford. Nearly 61% said they blamed Bridgestone/Firestone, while just 6.5% said they blamed Ford. More than half who purchased Firestone tires or vehicles with Firestone tires in the past two years said they would now make a different choice.

In a recent Harris poll, 67% of consumers said the Firestone tire recall would very likely influence their decision to purchase a Firestone product in the future. Only 25% said it would influence their decision to buy a Ford product.

Explorer sales were unaffected in August when the controversy broke, but September sales are expected to be the bellwether of Ford's success in managing the crisis.

Bridgestone/Firestone has fared worse, although it may not be in as bad a shape as some think. While Firestone's parent is vowing to stand behind the brand, the Firestone name has become monolog material for virtually every U.S. comedian, from Jay Leno to Chris Rock. And this type of ridicule often is most damaging, because Ford's and Firestone's success or failure in the crisis ultimately will depend more on public impressions than facts.

It took 10 years for sales of Volks-wagen's Audi to get back to where they were prior to the "sudden acceleration" crisis in the mid-1980s, even though it was proven there was no "defect." The problem proved to be what Audi claimed: Drivers were stepping on the gas pedal instead of the brake. Unfortunately, the public just couldn't forget the jokes, punchlines and editorial cartoons.