Detroit Free Press
September 29, 2005
Ford Motor Co., acknowledging for the first time that Lincoln Town Car stretch limousines might be prone to catching fire in high-impact rear collisions, is offering to help retrofit the vehicles to better protect them.
In a letter this month to companies that convert Town Cars into limousines, Ford said it would provide, at no cost, a kit to protect the vehicle’s gas tank from being punctured when rear-ended.
It is the same kit that Ford began installing on its popular Crown Victoria Police Interceptors in October 2003, after several police officers died in fuel-fed fires in their sedans. Civilians have also died in similar models of the vehicle.
The Town Car is built on the same basic structure, or platform, as Ford’s Crown Victoria and the Mercury Marquis. Nearly 32,000 Town Car stretch limos are on the road.
This is the first time that Ford Motor will make free kits available to owners of at least some of those cars.
A 2003 Free Press investigation found that at least 18 officers died when their Crown Victoria Police Interceptors caught fire when slammed from behind and that 51 other people died in rear-impact fires in the civilian version of the Crown Victoria, the Town Car and the Marquis, in the past two decades.
"Although there is no defect with your vehicle, Ford is providing an optional shield kit to enhance the rear collision performance of your vehicle," Ford said in its letter to the limousine makers. "Due to the increased weight and stiffness of the Town Car stretch limousine, there is an increased chance that the fuel tank may be punctured in a high speed/high energy rear collision."
Clarence Ditlow, an auto safety advocate, said Ford’s decision to provide the free kits is the "first admission by Ford that the fuel system in all of the Grand Marquis, Crown Victorias and Town Cars is defective, just as is the fuel system is in the Police Interceptors."
Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., said Ford will not put the issue to rest until it installs the kits on all civilian models. There are about 3 million of the cars on the road today.
Kristen Kinley, a spokeswoman for Ford, disputed Ditlow’s claims.
"We’re not saying there is something wrong," she said.
Ford has always said that there is no defect with the vehicle, Kinley said. Federal safety regulators also closed an investigation into the vehicles without finding a manufacturing defect.
Ford’s decision to provide the kits comes before a lawsuit against the company in the deaths of three sisters is set to go to trial in January in superior court in Davie County, N.C.
Sisters Tara Howell Parker, Mysti Howell Poplin and Megan Elizabeth Howell were returning home from a Fleetwood Mac concert in September 2003 when a truck barreled into their Town Car and it caught fire. Autopsies showed they burned to death.
Tom Dickinson, a Charlotte, N.C., lawyer who represents Parker’s estate, said Wednesday that Ford’s decision to provide the kits is a start, "and it’s important."
"From our perspective, we’re ecstatic that they’re doing it. That’s great news because it may prevent this from happening again."
Ford has installed the kits on just under 300,000 Crown Victoria police cars already on the road, and an additional 100,000 kits have been installed on the assembly line.
Ford Motor has made the kit available to owners of civilian models for the last couple of years, but charges for the parts and installation.