On November 29, 1978, Firestone announced the recall of 14.5 million steel belted radials produced by the company. This recall is the largest tire recall to date.
Firestone’s problems arose from the company trying to switch to a new tire building technology without first perfecting the methods to do so. In late 1971 and early 1972, Firestone, feeling the pressure of competition from Goodyear and Michelin, began the production of radial tires, almost two years before it had fully developed and installed its modern radial tire-building machinery and processes. From the start, Firestone had serious problems with the adhesion of the rubber compounds to the brass-coated steel wire in the tire’s inner belts. The lack of adhesion results in radial belt and tread separation when the outside tread splits from the rest of the tire or when the inner steel belts come loose from the tire carcass.
Failures of the Firestone 500 and closely related TCP steel belted radials have caused thousands of accidents resulting in hundreds of injuries and over forty known fatalities. The exact failure rate of the Firestone 500 steel belted radial is not precisely known; however, the high adjustment rate provides a good barometer to gauge the performance of Firestone 500 steel belted radials in comparison with other tires manufactured by Firestone. Between January, 1971 and March 1978, Firestone produced over 23.5 million 500 steel belted radials and adjusted over 4.1 million for an adjustment rate of 17.5 per cent. For Firestone’s other radials produced during the same period, they produced 30.3 million tires and adjusted only 1.6 million for an adjustment rate of 5.5 per cent. Therefore, the adjustment rate for the 500 steel belted radial was over three times the norm set by their other tires.
Since 1972, Firestone realized that they were having problems; however, Firestone, instead of withdrawing the tire until a satisfactory cure could be developed, continued to sell the tire while making changes on the assembly line. Thus, in effect, they were using the public as their guinea pigs. In spite of the development of a Resorcinol based skim stock to secure the rubber to the steel belts, complaints continued to come in from Firestone’s dealers and General Motors, Shell and the Atlas tire and accessory firm concerning the quality of the tires.
In 1974, after the death of an Alabama State Policeman caused by the failure of a Firestone 500 steel belted radial on his vehicle, the National Bureau of Standards investigated steel belted radials in general and Firestone steel belted radials in particular. The report released by the National Bureau of Standards concluded that steel belted radials had a tendency to fail at high speeds and suggested that they not be used on police vehicles. Firestone 500 steel belted radials were not singled out in the report for special criticism.
In 1976, Firestone continued to have such problems with its 500 steel belted radials that the federal government became interested. First the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) initiated a safety standard compliance investigation of the 500 steel belted radials after dropping an investigation of the 500 steel belted bias ply tires. The investigation of the 500 steel belted radials was later quietly dropped.
Based on consumer complaints, the Center for Auto Safety, in November 1977, urged Firestone to recall defective 500 steel belted radials. In December, NHTSA announced a survey of 100,000 car owners who have radial tires. After learning that the results of the survey were unfavorable to Firestone, Firestone filed suit in the Cleveland Federal District Court to block release of the survey results. NHTSA announced the initiation of a defect investigation of 500 steel belted radials. During this time, Firestone was unloading its remaining inventory of 500’s in half-price sales in some southern states.
On March 30, 1978, the Center for Auto Safety released a NHTSA internal memo describing the survey results. The memo was inadvertently included among other documents sent to the Center in response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Center to obtain portions of the 500 steel belted radial investigation unavailable to the public. In the wake of the publicity generated by the survey’s publication, NHTSA’s investigation gathered strength, and Congressional hearings were held by the House. Hearings on Safety of Firestone Steel-Belted Radial 500 Tires Before the Subcomm. on Oversight and Investigation, House Interstate & Foreign Commerce Comm., 95th Cong., 2d Sess. (May 19, 22, 23, Jul. 10,1978). Among the witnesses appearing at the hearing was Moira Johnston who authored a special investigative report for New West magazine, “Hell on Wheels,” May 8, 1978. Id at 2-66.
The Chairman of the Subcommittee John E. Moss, concluded in the Subcommittee’s report:
The record is clear that Firestone had early knowledge of the serious failure propensities of the 500. Its high adjustment rates in the early years, its unusually brisk activity in settling damage claims, and its energetic efforts to improve on the earlier tires all suggest its early knowledge.
These facts lead to but one conclusion. The Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. is, and has been for some time, in a position to avoid the devastating toll of human destruction which it knew its tires could cause. In the exercise of clear and conscious choice, it nonetheless permitted this destruction to take place.
The Safety of Firestone 500 Steel Belted Radial Tires, Rep. No. 95-60, House Interstate & Foreign Commerce Comm., 95th Cong., 2d Sess. 53 (Aug. 16, 1978).
On November 29, 1978, NHTSA and Firestone announced the final agreement to recall 14.5 million steel belted radials. The following categories of tires were recalled and were to be replaced free of charge:
– All five-rib 500 steel belted radials, including private brands of the same internal construction, manufactured in the United States and Canada before Jan. 1, 1977 and sold on or after Sept. 1, 1975.
– All seven-rib 500 steel belted radials, including private brands of the same internal construction, and Firestone TPC tires manufactured in the United States or Canada before May 1, 1976, and sold on or after Sept. 1, 1975.
– All five- and seven-rib 500’s and TPC’s manufactured before Sept. 1, 1975 that owners can prove were purchased after that date.
Firestone 500’s and private brands of the same construction are considered sold after September 1, 1975 if made after March 1, 1975. The "private brands" subject to the recall include Wards Grappler and Grappler II steel radials, Shell steel radials, National steel radials, Seiberling RT 78 steel belted radials, Holiday Supreme steel radials, LeMans steel belted radials, Atlas Goldenaire II Caravel Supreme radials, Caravelle Double steel radials, K Mart radial 40, Union steel radials, Zenith Supreme steel belted radials, and JTW Ferrari and Ferrari Supreme steel belted radials.
On September 26, 1979, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the NHTSA for the recall of all Firestone 500 and related steel belted radial tires made after the cutoff date for the recall announced on November 29, 1978. Based on an analysis of internal Firestone documents released by NHTSA in December 1978 and on a continuing flood of consumer complaints, the Center could find no difference between the earlier-made 500’s subject to recall and the later ones not subject to recall. The later-made 500’s continued to fail in exactly the same manner: tread separations, broken steel belts, and blowouts.
On May 12, 1980, NHTSA imposed a $500,000 fine on Firestone for selling Firestone 500 steel belted radials which the company knew to be defective because they failed to comply with the high speed requirement of Safety Standard 109. Involved in this civil sanction were the 400,000 Firestone 500s made in 1973-1974 and recalled by Firestone in 1977 just before NHTSA began its massive investigation of all 500’s. By terms of the settlement agreement with Firestone, NHTSA was precluded from imposing a fine in the larger and later Firestone recalls.
On July 16, 1980, Firestone announced that it would recall the 5 million Firestone 500 and related steel belted radials made after the cutoff date for the earlier recall. This last episode in the sad saga of the Firestone 500 steel belted radial was in large part precipitated by a complete change in top management at Firestone in the spring of 1980.