Tire dealers voice opinions on recall

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Congressman Billy Tauzin says seven brands now being fitted on Ford vehicles have a failure rate higher than the Firestones they're replacing! What do tire dealers think?

A year after Firestone recalled 6.5 million ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires and one month after Ford said it is replacing all 13 million Firestone Wilderness AT tires now on Ford vehicles, Congressman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has thrown the whole mess into a cocked hat.

According to Tauzin, seven tire brands now being fitted to Ford vehicles show a higher failure rate than the Firestone Wilderness AT Ford recalled last month.

He reportedly named the Goodyear Wrangler HT and the General Grabber AP XL, but would not name the five additional brands his office has identified as being deficient. That news will be made public in 30 days.

First, a word from Goodyear and General. Goodyear defended its tires by calling such claims as serving only to raise "unfounded fears," while a spokeswoman for

Continental General said General tires are safe.

So where does that leave independent tire dealers? How about right in the middle. "I worry about the long term implications of the Ford/Firestone battle," says Davis Rosen Jr., president of Davis Tire & Auto Care in Mt. Jackson, Va.

"Already I've had customers ask me what the failure rate is for a particular tire. That makes me wonder what the tire buyer in the near future is going to demand from me. So far, most of them are not scared, but will they be if this keeps going on?"

The longtime Virginia tire dealer said he called the local Ford dealership and told them to send recall customers to him. "I take the Firestones off and replace them because it's good business for me," he says, "but I've only found a problem with two tires so far.

"Both of those came off of I-81 near my store and both suffered tread separations. But one of those tires was nine years old, the other was seven years old and both were dry rotted. Also after checking the inflation pressure in the remaining three tires, I suspected that all four tires were underinflated."

Rosen believes the consumer is getting a pretty good deal. "Wouldn't you like to pull off a set of half-worn Firestones and replace them with a set of brand new Michelins?"

Concerned about the future of the tire business and how people will come to view the reputation of tire dealers, Rosen wonders about Firestone's priorities.

"I know that Ford reduced the recommended inflation pressure in Firestone tires on Ford Explorers to 26 psi. Later, I heard that Ford asked Firestone to take some weight out of the tire in order to improve fuel mileage. I don't know anymore what's true and what isn't."

The former Kelly brand dealer said he switched to Michelin Americas Small Tires (MAST) in February which he calls a big plus. "I think Michelin is going to come out on top when this is all over," he says.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., Dyanne Gillis, assistant store manager for Tire Centers LLS, called the latest revelation from Chairman Tauzin a fiasco. "I've never sold a Goodyear or a Firestone," she says, "but I don't see any more Ford SUVs coming in here with tread seps than any brand of SUV.

"Here in the Springs, we don't really see the kind of rollover situations they say they're having in the southern states. Still our customers are very impatient when it comes to getting Firestone tires off their Ford vehicles. Some even ask us for used tires until our backordered replacements arrive. We don't do that, but they ask."

Like Davis Rosen in Virginia, Gillis said her customers are asking her to check the DOT number on their tires and also are beginning to ask about tire failure rates. "Interestingly, women tire buyers are more concerned about this entire issue than men buyers," Gillis says.

"Also, the Firestone tires we're taking off are about half worn out after roughly two years of service. We find that people are increasingly afraid that these tires will let go at any time, so we change them out."

The Colorado tire woman says business has been good since Ford agreed to pay for the latest recall. "We couldn't believe Ford said it would pick up the tab," she said. "As a MAST dealer, business has been very good lately and we're seeing a lot of new customers."

Carolyn Lewallen with Ratliff Tire Co. Inc. a Bridgestone/Firestone dealership in Rainbow, Texas, believes Firestone more than compensated for its problems. "When we had to slash Firestone tires to pieces in the summer of 2000, Firestone reimbursed us and gave us some credit for our labor as well. Too bad Ford didn't do the same thing when they should have," she says, "at the very start.

"We don't have any relationship with Ford because of all this," she said. "Moreover, we can't get the replacement tires we need, so we simply send recall customers to the Ford dealership and let them handle it. I'm glad John Lampe (chief executive at Firestone) set his jaw and said enough is enough.

"What I wonder about," Lewallen says, "is what will happen to new tire sales once all these SUV owners have brand new replacement tires. All I can say is we're going to do our best and hang in there."

At the Northwest Tire Factory near Portland, Ore., CEO Nick Hodell, who watches over 150 stores in six states, had not heard about the latest brouhaha in Billy Tauzin's committee. "But I can say that these recalls have been very good for business in our stores."

For the record, Hodell's stores handle Goodyear, Kelly, Dunlop, Cooper, Hankook, Continental and Dayton. "Hopefully we will not see recall trends like this in the future," he says. "True, we have an adjustment here and there, but no consistent problem."

Taking that point further, Hodell chose his words carefully. "If there was a problem, a trend of tire failures I could identify, I would be all over Goodyear in a heartbeat. If Goodyear has a tire problem, an image problem, then I have a problem. But I'm not aware of any Goodyear problem and I meet with our store managers regularly to discuss these kinds of issues.

"I've even asked them if they've seen any problems with Firestone tires and I'm told we aren't seeing the kinds of problems dealers in the southern states are seeing.

"My biggest concern on hearing this latest news from Tauzin's committee is that consumer trust in asking tire dealers to make decisions for them will erode. We have a strong reputation because people trust us, but will all of this confusion cause consumers to lose that trust?"

Paul 'Skip' Levengood, president of C&J Tire in Birdsboro, Pa., says he's worried that soon the consumer will think every tire is bad and that isn't fair to anybody. "They will want to point fingers, but at whom? I sure don't know at this point and quite frankly I pity the consumer and I worry about tire dealers.

"The other night I was at a meeting when we all were told that a lady driving a Ford Explorer with older Firestone tires she had not replaced suffered a rollover on the 422 bypass near here. I understand that she was airlifted out and is hurt pretty bad.

"Soon consumers are going to have a bad feeling about tire dealers. How long will it be before they question our motives for making money? I can tell you this, I don't need to cheat people to make money. I've always made money because I do it right and I take care of my customers."

Still, Levengood said he recently had to deal with an angry customer. "He brought his vehicle in here with brand new Firestone tires. He wanted me to give him $450 cash. "I don't want or need new tires," he said, "I'll just take the money." "I can put on a set of tires that Ford says are OK to use as replacement tires," Levengood said, "but I can't give you cash.

"The sad part is that this is happening at all," says the owner of seven stores in eastern Pennsylvania. "I think the media and the legal types are fanning the flames on this one."

In sunny, hot Arizona, Bud Sawka, with S&S Tire in Surprise, Ariz., says he can't get replacement tires for the recalled Firestones. "We've been told to put Michelin on first, and if we don't have those, put on BFGs.

"We don't sell Firestone tires and I have nothing against them," he says. "But running 26 psi in a Ford Explorer out here when the ambient temperature is 105 degrees and the pavement is even hotter is, inflation readings that low are a definite no no.

"Consumers don't check inflation pressures here any more than they do elsewhere. Often we see pressures of 20 to 22 psi on the vehicles we're servicing. Even so, I am not aware of any rollovers around here and I've seen no failures on the ATX or Wilderness tires. But we replace them because consumers are scared."

A Michelin, Uniroyal dealer, Sawka says he has been instructed to put four or five new tires on Ford Explorers (five when the spare is full-sized). "This recall sure isn't hurting us any. We also operate stores in Goodyear and Evandale, Ariz., with total annual sales of $3.5 million."

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