Blood Thicker Than Water, But Not Rubber

December 15, 2010

2 Min Read
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Everybody loves fairy-tale endings. Especially when they unite two strong personalities.

Wasn't it inspiring when Carroll Shelby and Ford Motor Co. ended their interminable feud with the GT500's introduction in 2005? I rode shotgun with Shelby the first time he got behind the wheel of a pre-production unit and the event was nothing short of cathartic.

So when market buzz began to build about the redesigned Ford Explorer, I wondered: Would we see the Blue Oval reunite with Firestone?

The timing is perfect. The '11 model is the first all-new Explorer to debut since the 2001 Ford-Firestone falling-out killed a relationship that is unrivaled in the annals of American business.

In 1906, Henry Ford hand-picked Firestone as the tire supplier for the Model T -- arguably the U.S. auto industry's most enduring icon.

HF1 and Firestone founder Harvey Firestone also were buddies. They went camping together.

Along with Thomas Edison, they comprised the so-called "Millionaires Club."

Ford and Firestone are even bound by blood. Henry's grandson, William, married Harvey's granddaughter, Martha.

Ironically, the long-standing Ford-Firestone partnership dissolved while William and Martha's son, Bill Ford Jr., was chairman of the auto maker.

It's hard to question the move. Faulty Firestone rubber was linked to some 300 traffic fatalities that also stained the Explorer's reputatation -- a blot that lingers still, says former Ford insider Jon Harmon.

"Whenever you’re looking to protect a brand, you want to steer toward the positive and that was negative," Harmon says of the tread-separation debacle that divided the auto industry giants.

Harmon is author of Feeding Frenzy, an inside look at the crisis, and he spoke recently with my colleague, Associate Editor Byron Pope.

"It was a big effort for Ford to replace Firestone as a supplier," Harmon says. "They had to go through all the product lines and find appropriate tires."

To this day, no new U.S.-market Ford or Lincoln comes equipped with Firestone rubber. The '11 Explorer arrives with Goodyear, Michelin and Hankook.

So as the redesigned SUV begins to roll off the line at Ford's assembly plant in Chicago, don't hold your breath for happily-ever-after. The memory of the crisis and its associated tragedies are still too fresh, Harmon says.

And while long associations are worth considerable mileage in the marketplace, he adds: "Companies are looking for associations for the future, not the past."

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