Ford offers Town Car limo owners safety kit

Vehicles share same gasoline tank design as fire-prone Crown Victoria police cruisers.

By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a move that could revive the debate over the safety of gas-tank design, Ford Motor Co. is offering Lincoln Town Car limousine owners the same repair kits it has made available for the Crown Victoria police cruiser.

Ford has been dogged by complaints about the police cruiser, as more than a dozen officers have died in fires after their parked cars have been struck from behind at high speeds. Ford says there is no defect, and the optional upgrades are being offered for "customer satisfaction." Owners of 1995 through 2006 Town Cars that have been modified into stretch limousines are eligible for the upgrades. Ford estimates there are 31,815 such cars on the road.

But safety groups said Wednesday the limousine campaign was a landmark in their efforts to get Ford to address the safety of the fuel-tank design. The Crown Victoria police cruiser shares a fuel-tank design with other versions of the Crown Victoria, the Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Grand Marquis. All of the vehicles have a fuel tank located behind the rear axle, which critics contend leaves it vulnerable to being punctured in a rear-end crash.

"It's the first admission by Ford that the fuel-tank defect in the Police Interceptors extends to the civilian fleet," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. "Up until now, Ford has tried to say only the Police Interceptors need their fuel tanks improved."

In a search of federal crash databases, the Center for Auto Safety found 18 fire deaths in the Crown Victoria, Town Car and Grand Marquis models in 2004. There were five deaths in Town Cars and four deaths in Police Interceptors.

Since 2002, when Ford first responded to complaints by police departments about recurring fires in their cruisers, the company has said it rigorously tests the vehicles beyond federal safety standards. The vehicles have a statistical safety record that compares well with similar models by other automakers, Ford has said.

In a statement released Wednesday, Ford said a Town Car converted to a stretch limousine has increased weight and a substantially altered structure.

But Ford added in the statement that even with these changes, the Town Car limousine meets federal crash-test standards and has been successfully crash-tested at 50 mph.

"Ford has concluded that a system of shields developed for use on police pursuit vehicles could improve safety on stretch limousines, which may perform differently in high-speed rear accidents as the result of their increased weight and stiffness," the company statement said. "Ford is offering those shields to limousine owners at no charge."

The program asks customers to call Ford at a toll-free number to order a repair kit. Customers are responsible for the installation of the kit.

The kit includes the same set of shields and fuel-tank straps offered to police departments since 2003.

Plastic shields are placed over the differential cover and the rear axle. Isolators are put over the fuel-tank straps. The shields are designed to prevent bolts from puncturing the fuel tank in a high-speed collision, potentially avoiding a fuel leak that could catch on fire.

Ford has made the kit available to any customer through its dealers for $105, plus labor charges.

In October 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed a yearlong investigation into the Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis and Town Car without finding the models defective. NHTSA said the fatality rate of the three models was comparable to similar Chevrolet cars.

Ford's move follows an April $43 million jury verdict in Illinois over a case involving a Lincoln Town Car. In that case, a 73-year-old man died from burns and his wife, 70, suffered permanent injuries following a fire. According to attorneys involved in the case, the jury faulted Ford for not alerting civilian drivers about the risk of fuel-tank fires in its Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis models.

Ford faces another legal test in January, when a North Carolina jury will consider Ford's liability over a crash involving a Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine fire that killed three women, including the wife of a former NASCAR crew chief.

"The offer is too late and too little, as usual," said David Perry, the Corpus Christi, Texas, lawyer handling the North Carolina case.

Previous coverage of Ford's Crown Victoria problems

Court rejects Florida police class action against Ford Motor Co.

Jury finds Ford's Crown Vic design not liable in trooper death

Ford recalling 150,000 vehicles used by police, taxi companies

Judge: Ford can refuse to sell cars to police suing company

Crown Victoria axles probed

Ford recalling 1.6 million sport utes, also Crown Vics
Crown Vic faces further scrutiny

Dead trooper's family sues Ford for $250 million

Ford plans cop cruiser fix