No one can say Ford doesn't get lots of publicity. Unfortunately, most of it is bad. The company expects to lose $10 billion this year and is trying to borrow $15 billion in operating cash as its "Way Forward" turns into a desperate dash for the exits.
Wall Street may still be wondering about Ford's future, but two important constituent groups have already made up their mind -- customers and employees are running the other way.
Ford had a 10 percent drop in sales in November compared to a year earlier, slipping behind Toyota for the second time this year.
Perhaps most ominously, employees are fleeing like miners whose canary has died. A mind-boggling 38 percent of Ford's hourly workers have agreed to take buyouts, hoping to get out before the company caves in on them.
Newspapers and TV tend to treat it as a business story, quoting financial analysts, politicians, union leaders and the usual collection of talking heads. Almost no one listens to consumers -- the lifeblood of the American economy. This is a major oversight, as no company that spurns, ignores or mistreats its customers will long survive, no matter how many friends it has on Wall Street or Capitol Hill.
At ConsumerAffairs.com, we hear from Ford owners every day ... and they are not happy. Their Ford cars and trucks are still spitting spark plugs, catching fire and locking up the ignition. In response, Ford stonewalls, federal safety regulators dawdle and dealers -- well, the dealers, as always, do whatever they can get by with.
While Ford diddles with its finances and holds erudite discussions about its manufacturing processes, it is alienating huge segments of its customer base with shoddy products and an astonishingly cavalier response to consumer complaints. In the last 12 months, we have received four times more complaints about Ford products than about GM or DaimlerChrysler.
No only are Ford complaints more frequent than complaints about other brands, the problems that spark the complaints are major -- ruined engines, disastrous fires and repeated ignition lock-ups being the most common.
Thousands of Ford owners have suffered the ordeal of a spark plug being spit out of their engine, damaging the head and costing thousands of dollars to repair. Ford refuses to help, even if the car or truck is still under warranty.
Many Ford dealers feign surprise at the sight of a spark plug blown out of its position in the cylinder head and profess to have never seen anything like the mess spread out before them.
Those denials are blatantly false, disingenuous and misleading. Lies, in other words.
"Ford has known of the spark plug blow-out problem for a long, long time," one angry Ford mechanic told us. "They even have a service bulletin regarding it. They insist they don't but they do."
The mechanic also charged that Ford knowingly advises customers to opt for the most expensive repair procedure: "They also say the only way to fix it is to replace the heads and will not do it any other way. I have personally repaired three trucks in less than 30 minutes with a spark plug rethread kit."
"This is a Ford scam. They are making millions off these repairs. The problem is that the spark plug holes have less than 3 threads new from the manufacturer and over time they strip and blow out," the mechanic told us.
Following the Ford recommendation requires owners to replace both the cylinder head and the spark plugs. The cost varies depending upon dealer but is approximately $3,000.
Ford Stonewalls, NHTSA Nods
Publicly, Ford continues to stonewall the spark-plug-spitting problem and refuses to acknowledge any responsibility.
The automaker has a powerful ally in the nation's No. 1 automobile safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
NHTSA is backing up Ford by refusing to consider the issue beyond stating that their analysis of 474 complaints describing the incidents "found only a very few alleged any safety-related consequences. None of these showed any evidence of a serious safety consequence."
NHTSA concluded its brief probe by saying, "In the need to allocate and prioritize limited resources to best accomplish the agency's safety mission, the petition (for a full-scale investigation possibly leading to a recall) is denied."
Most of the complaints of spit spark plugs involve vehicles with Triton V-8 and V-10 engines in model years 1997 to 2002. This includes the Econoline vans, F-Series trucks, the Explorer, Expedition, Excursion, Crown Victoria and some models of the Mustang.
Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety, characterized the NHTSA decision to take a pass on spit spark plugs as the agency at its worst.
"They're waiting for accidents, deaths or injuries before ordering a safety recall," he said.
Customers Feel Cheated
Thousands of Ford customers feel cheated by the automaker and abandoned by their government safety regulator, NHTSA.
Mike of Sarasota, Florida put it this way: "My Ford F350 pickup blew out a spark plug in cylinder number three. I spoke with a friend who works at a Ford dealership. I said you'll never guess what happened to my truck Bob. He said make you a bet. You blew out a spark plug."
Mike got the usual treatment -- no help from Ford and an estimated repair cost of nearly $3,000.
"I can't afford it. My truck is a 2003 with only 69,000 miles on it," he said.
Jim blew a plug on a 2001 Excursion with 75,500 miles on it that he had just bought. The truck was still under the 30-day used vehicle warranty. "Our local Ford dealer blamed it on the spark plug threads and it cost over $3,000 to fix even with the warranty.
In Buford, Georgia, where Chris had his engine repaired, the dealer had a hard time placing the blame on the spark plug.
"The plugs were installed by a professional Ford Certified Mechanic using Motorcraft plugs recommended by Ford," Chris told us.
Nevertheless, Chris is out $3,625 following the spark plug repair.
Ford Truck Fires
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently ordered a major recall and another large investigation is still underway at the agency probing why so many Ford vehicles seem prone to catch fire.
NHTSA is looking into complaints that models of the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute SUVs have inexplicably caught fire.
The investigation involves more than 600,000 SUVs from the 2001-2003 model years. NHTSA has received eight complaints of engine fires around the antilock braking system's electronic control module.
The newest investigation follows the massive recall of 6.7 million Ford vehicles in August because the cruise control switch might cause a potentially devastating fire that could spread throughout the engine compartment and set the vehicle ablaze.
Despite the recalls and NHTSA investigations, Fords are still burning.
In early October, a 1996 Ford F250 pickup truck erupted into flames after sitting parked for four days. The owner told ConsumerAffairs.com he had scheduled an appointment with Ford for the speed deactivation switch recall three days later.
The fire destroyed the truck and a 1994 Nissan Maxima sitting in the driveway. Ford replied that "the damage to the truck was too severe to determine if Ford was at fault" and denied any claim of liability.
In November, a 2000 Ford Explorer caught fire along I-95 near Richmond. The owner said that the fire "appears to have started somewhere under the driver's side tire.
"Someone traveling alongside me was constantly honking their horn and flashing their lights until they got my attention." she wrote us.
The owner said that there had no previous work done on the Ford Explorer other than regular maintenance and the truck had been running fine.
By the time the fire department reached her along the busy Interstate highway, "the truck is nothing but ashes, totaled."
Another Ford owner in Dayton, Ohio, watched his F150 truck burn to the ground in his own driveway.
"On October 6, 2006, my 1999 Ford F150 caught fire in my driveway. It was not running. According to the Dayton Fire Department and the forensic firm that inspected the vehicle, the fire originated at the master cylinder, the exact place that the Ford cruise control engineering defect is located." he wrote.
The owner was in contact with Ford's legal department. He told ConsumerAffairs.com that Ford is "refusing to make any accommodations for my losses."
Here are some other examples of Ford products which have caught fire since the NHTSA order to recall 6.3 million Fords in August.
• Amos in Houston, Texas: "On October 21, 2006, my 2000 Ford F150 crew cab pick up truck caught fire while parked in front of my daughter's apartment. The vehicle was destroyed."
• David in Clovis, California, suffered a Ford fire in October. "My 2005 Ford F350 caught fire while parked in my driveway. Truck is totaled."
• Jacob in San Jose, California: "My 1998 Ford Expedition XLT caught fire when parked in the lot at Georgio's restaurant after driving for about 20 minutes. The fire started in the engine compartment and burned a hole through the hood damaging everything forward of the firewall."
• Patsy in Helotes, Texas lost her Explorer in August. "My 2000 Ford Explorer caught on fire sitting in my garage and burned down the garage and everything in it. I have good insurance but they will not pay for what burned in the car, all the landscaping that burned and a melted sprinkler system."
• Jerry in Rayle, Georgia: "The truck was a 1994 F150. It had a recall on the cruise control. It was just sitting in the yard one day and we were fixing to go to town. When I looked out the window there was a flame coming out from under the hood."
Ford Vans and Cars
Other Fords have caught fire as well. On November 12 a Ford Crown Victoria caught fire in Richmond, Virginia, while sitting in a driveway. The owner had not driven his Ford for 12 hours.
• Deb in Durham, North Carolina, lost her Ford Windstar. "My four children and I awakened to what sounded like gunshots being fired in our driveway. It was not gunshots, however, it was the sound of my 2000 Ford Windstar's tires exploding from the heat of the fire that had engulfed my vehicle while we all slept," she wrote.
• Sheyed in Burnt Hills, New York: "My 1996 Ford Windstar caught on fire due to the speed control switch that is the subject of recalls in various other models. My wife and two young children were in the vehicle when it caught fire but they were close to home. They parked in the driveway and got out quickly. I was able to extinguish the fire before significant damage but it was quite frightening for them."
• Martin in Brooklyn, New York lost a Taurus to fire. "My Ford 2001 Taurus caught fire, spontaneously, while I was parking the car in Manhattan. Right now the car is a total loss and is in storage near my house awaiting word from my insurance company as to how much they will pay for coverage.
The Ford Focus
The Ford Focus ignition switch is among the most bitter of lemons because the problem can recur. The switch is known to break again and again ... and sometimes even again. Consumers have complained for years, to no avail.
Carrie in Grand Haven, Michigan "was stranded at a friend's house until the early hours of the morning."
Joel in Oak Park, Illinois says he has seen it all before. "My 2000 Ford Focus ignition switch has failed and won't turn for the second time in 80,000 miles.
Heather in Wahiawa, Hawaii summed up her problems with her car this way: "My 2000 Focus is a piece of junk. The ignition switched has been replaced three times and is jamming again. Ford continues to insist that I pay for these replacements," she wrote.
Helene was "stranded in a seedy part of town unable to start my car" in Colorado. Dalila and her daughter were stranded in 101-degree heat in the summer while she was pregnant.
In Kyle, Texas, Shelia found that the ignition in her Focus "would not turn and left me stranded. I live 50 miles from my cafe in Bastrop."
The faulty ignition is the most nagging unresolved problem with the Focus. Many Focus consumers have even had a broken ignition repaired under the Ford warranty only to have to replace the locking mechanism themselves once the warranty has expired.
The replacement cost can exceed $500 each time the lock fails -- a lot of money for something that's supposed to be an economy car.
A California lawyer is suing Ford but the company insists that "based on our review of reports Ford has received, a technical service bulletin to help technicians repair an ignition cylinder problem is the appropriate action."
Jeffrey Fazio thinks otherwise. His lawsuit on behalf of all California Ford Focus owners claims Ford knew about the problem before it began selling the Focus in the U.S. back in 1999.
Fazio says that most of the failures do not occur until after the three-year, 36,000-mile warranty has expired. The lawsuit also accuses Ford of providing free repairs to some consumers whose warranties were expired, but not to others which would be a violation of California consumer protection laws.
In El Cajon, California, Paul is thinking about the future when he thinks about the broken ignition switch in his Ford Focus and expresses his thoughts this way. "My warranty will cover it this time, but what about next time? Thank God we are going back to Toyota."
What Can You Do?
Now and then, a company in trouble will turn to its loyal customers for help, asking them to buy more of its products and recruit their friends and associates to do likewise, perhaps even offering to fix or replace any of its products that have proven to be defective.
After all, it's a generally accepted principle of business that the cost of acquiring a new customer is much higher than the cost of keeping an existing one, but this is perhaps news to Ford, which seems to think it can magically reinvent itself without worrying about the millions of its customers who buy a new car or truck every few years.
Thus, a prudent consumer might want to look elsewhere for a new vehicle. While no automaker is perfect, few can match Ford's record of ignoring major problems with its products.
Those already stuck with a trouble-plagued Ford have several options, none of them very attractive:
• Keep good records Hang onto all your repair estimates and receipts as well as all the receipts for routine maintenance. Keep copies of all letters and emails you write to or receive from Ford, your dealer or others. If you have face-to-face or telephone conversations, write a memo outlining what was said.
• Every state has an auto lemon law, though some are much tougher than others. Generally, they cover any recurring problem that the dealer has been unable to fix after three or more attempts. In most states, you need an attorney to pursue a lemon law complaint. Check our for more information.
• Consider small claims court For problems that don't exceed a few thousand dollars, small claims is usually the way to go. Consumers can sue their dealer or sue the manufacturer for the cost of repairing defects. You don't need a lawyer in most states. The maximum amount of your claim varies widely by states. Check our state-by-state guide for more information.
• Don't count on the feds As Hurricane Katrina showed, government can be -- and, in fact, usually is -- slow to act. By the time the feds get around to recalling your vehicle, it may have already incinerated itself or you may have pushed it over a cliff. Sadly, class action lawsuits against auto manufacturers are seldom successful because the companies have so much legal firepower they can outspend and outwait the plaintiffs.
• Complain loudly Complain to ConsumerAffairs.com, NHTSA, your local newspaper and TV consumer reporters, the Better Business Bureau and other consumer sites. Don't go overboard -- be factual and succinct, avoid name-calling.
• Keep insurance up to date If your Ford incinerates itself, you'll need comprehensive coverage if you hope to get anything out of your auto insurance policy. If it sets fire to other vehicles, your garage or your house, your homeowner's policy should cover at least some of the damage. Don't expect Ford to voluntarily pay for anything.
• Injured? Get help If someone is seriously injured or killed by a Ford fire or other mishap, it's important to immediately contact the best-known personal injury lawyer in your area. Don't try to negotiate with Ford yourself; you must have an aggressive, competent trial lawyer representing you.
• Be safe Maybe Ford has fixed the problem of its vehicles exploding into flames while parked and unattended, but do you want to bet your life on it? Our advice: Leave Fords outside and well away from your house. Never leave children, pets or disabled adults alone in a Ford.
A Winning Strategy?
Ford may believe that its strategy of stiff-arming owners of defective vehicles is a home run. It has certainly been practicing it consistently, starting decades ago when it ignored the tendency of the Ford Pinto to burst into flames when hit from the rear.
Since then, it has stonewalled complaints about Ford police cars' proclivity to catch fire. It ignored complaints about head gasket failures in the 3.8L V-6 engine used in the Windstar and other models. Only when a class action lawsuit was filed did the company agree to extend the warranty on some models, a solution that was accepted by the court but left many consumers without help of any kind.
But Ford's not-our-problem, too-bad-for-you strategy may prove to be the classic example of the operation-successful, patient-died paradox. While disclaiming responsibility for its products' safety and utility, Ford may succeed in chasing off so many customers that it is no longer a viable business.
That would be a real non-starter.
Ford's Lemons Leave Sour Taste in Consumers' Mouths...