Critics Say Fuel Tanks Periously Placed

DETROIT FREE PRESS
December 8, 2003
By Jennifer Dixon
Free Press Staff Writer

The Ford Crown Victoria, the Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Grand Marquis are an old breed of big, traditional rear-wheel-drive sedans. All three vehicles get five stars from the federal government for holding up in front-end crashes, and at least four of five stars for side-impact crashes. The Grand Marquis and Crown Victoria also get top crash ratings from the well-respected Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by the insurance industry.

But critics say the cars have a dangerous flaw: a vertically mounted steel gas tank sandwiched between the trunk and the rear axle that is exposed to bolts and flanges. They say the tank is susceptible to puncture in a rear-impact crash, which could lead to intense and almost instantaneous fires. Ford says 3.5 million of the vehicles, built since 1992, are on the road today, including 350,000 Crown Victoria Police Interceptors.

Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine, said that when Ford built the three big sedans, the location of the gas tank was accepted technology. But today, he said, it is "no longer regarded as state of the art. That's a vanishing example. I haven't seen a new car designed that way in ages."   David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, says the three Ford cars are "sort of behind the times . . . most of the gas tanks these days are in front of the rear axle."

Michael Harrigan, chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineers' Fuel Systems Standards Committee, said most passenger cars built today have fuel tanks located between the front and rear suspensions. The society is a professional association of engineers; its fuel systems committee authors and adopts industry standards on most aspects of fuel systems. "The perception is that it is a more protected location," Harrigan said.

The Crown Vic, Town Car and Grand Marquis are built on the Panther platform, a design launched in 1979 with aV8 engine, rear-wheel drive and body-on-frame construction, which makes them rugged and durable. Ford redesigned the cars in 1992, though the gas tank remained in the same location.  "Architecturally, it is still very true to what it was 20, 25 years ago," said Lindsay Brooke, a senior analyst at CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, an automotive industry forecasting and analysis firm. "That is a primary reason why Ford is still making nice profits on the car."

Ford insists the Crown Vic's gas tank is not a safety hazard. To build a car with the features that policesay they want, the company says it has little choice but to keep the tank behind the rear axle. "If the car needs a frame rail because it's going over curbs and getting high mileage and rough use and it needs to be a rear-wheel pursuit vehicle and it needs a live rear axle for durability and performance, we don't have options," said Doug Lampe, a lawyer for Ford. "We have one good spot, and it's the spot we've chosen in the Crown Victoria."

Csere said Ford cannot easily move the gas tank without complete reengineering. "The architecture of that car doesn't allow it," Csere said. "They'd have to start from scratch." Brooke said the expense of redesigning a vehicle is difficult to calculate, but he puts the total costs of retooling the factory to build a reengineered vehicle at $550 million to $670 million.

Contact Jennifer Dixon at 313-223-4410 or dixon@freepress.com.