Tuesday, September 21, 2004
Plain Dealer Auto Editor
Ford has sent letters to millions of owners of its most popular trucks emphasizing the importance of regularly inspecting the tie rods, crucial steering components investigated in 1998 by the federal government for a possible safety defect.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ended that investigation after several months, concluding the failure rate of the tie rods appeared to be low. And if a tie rod fails, the driver could "easily" maintain steering control of the vehicle, the agency said.
The investigation of 1997 and 1998 F-150s was prompted after five consumers complained that their tie rods had failed. During the investigation, Ford told NHTSA it knew of 21 other failures.
A Plain Dealer survey of NHTSA’s consumer complaint files Monday found more than 130 complaints of tie-rod failures on vehicles related to the last generation of the F-150. Those complaints included 47 on the 1998 model F-150, which Ford redesigned for the 2004 model year. There were reports of five crashes but no injuries.
NHTSA spokeswoman Elly Martin said the safety agency is always interested in new information about its cases.
Although NHTSA concluded the 1998 investigation without requiring a recall of an estimated 1.5 million 1997-1998 F-150s, the agency could reopen and expand the investigation.
A Ford spokesman did not return several calls on Monday seeking comment.
Ford’s letter to owners and the number of complaints to NHTSA "is a clarion call to NHTSA to open a defect investigation," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.
The letter Ford sent out last month covers 1997 – 2002 F-150s; 1997-1999 F-250 light duty pickups; 1997-2002 Expedition; 1998-2002 Lincoln Navigator and 2002 Lincoln Blackwood.
It reminds owners that it is "essential" that the steering and front suspension including tie rods be inspected every 15,000 miles.
Failure of the tie rods "could adversely affect steering control," the letter said.
But the owner must pay for repairs unless the vehicle is still under warranty, according to the letter from Frank Ligon, the director of Ford’s service engineering operations.
When NHTSA orders a safety recall, the automaker must pay for repairs.
The inspection need not be done at a Ford dealership but must be done by a qualified mechanic, the letter said. Attached was diagnostic information to make it easier for an independent mechanic to check.
In the 1998 investigation NHTSA conducted tests on a 1997 F-Expedition and concluded that a failure of the tie rod was most likely to occur at parking lot speeds, particularly during a U-turn. That maneuver would cause the tie rod to pull apart if it had been weakened by corrosion. A loss of control was not likely to be a problem, the NHTSA investigators concluded.
That Expedition is a mechanical sibling of the F-150 as well as the Lincoln Navigator and Blackwood.
Many of the newer consumer complaints on the NHTSA Web site cited failures during parking-lot maneuvers.
However, a few reported that the failure occurred at higher speeds and said they felt they couldn’t control the vehicle.
The owner of a 2000 Expedition told NHTSA there was a "catastrophic failure" of a tie rod at about 20 mph in July, causing a loss of control and "impact into a tree," although there were no injuries.
Another Expedition owner complained of a failure last March at 60 mph. "As a result, the driver lost control, but was able to recover and pulled to the side of the road," the owner told the agency.
"With over 100 complaints on record, NHTSA’s lack of action is inexplicable," Ditlow said in an e-mail.