DETROIT -- Yielding to public pressure and a series of class-action lawsuits, Ford Motor Co. yesterday announced the largest recall by a single automaker, asking that the owners of 8.7 million cars, trucks and minivans bring them to dealers for replacement of ignition switches that might cause fires.
The recall covers the bulk of Ford's vehicles for 1988 through 1992 model years as well as a few early 1993 model cars.
The company had received complaints that short circuits in the switches had started at least 1,100 fires in the United States and Canada.
Jon F. Harmon, a spokesman for Ford, said the company had heard of 21 injuries, two of them serious, related to these fires in the United States. None were fatal, Mr. Harmon said. There have also been complaints of nine injuries in Canada in recent years, none serious, he said.
Richard S. Schiffrin, the lead lawyer for eight class-action lawsuits seeking the recall, said that while he was not aware of any deaths associated with the fires, some families had lost their homes when vehicles caught fire while parked in garages.
Ford had resisted a recall for several years, through three federal investigations. An internal company memorandum, dated Feb. 16, 1995, and distributed to reporters in recent weeks by lawyers suing Ford, shows that the company was already aware of a "very small potential for ignition switch fires on certain vehicles." The memorandum warned of "a potential for adverse publicity at any time."
The publicity that Ford feared began last November, when Canadian safety authorities ordered a recall of 248,000 Ford cars and trucks there. At least nine class-action lawsuits in the United States have been filed since then, accompanied by a spate of news coverage.
The ignition switches involved in the recall were manufactured for Ford by the United Technologies Corp., and were installed in 26 million Ford vehicles for the 1983 through 1993 model years. Ford is recalling only a third of the vehicles because of an engineering study that found a problem only in vehicles that use a lot of electrical power for heater fans and other components, and that have ignition switches produced after May 1987.
Michael B. Brownlee, the chief investigator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the Ford study presented to federal officials had shown that a 1987 design change in the ignition switches may have made them more likely to short out.
Michael Scholl, a spokesman for United Technologies, said the company believes that the switches performed properly "in a normal operating environment." Mr. Harmon said there was some evidence that the switches had more severe problems in cold climates, like Canada's.
Mr. Schiffrin said that by excluding two-thirds of the vehicles with the United Technologies switches, Ford's recall did not cover about 20 percent of the fires that he had heard about. As a result, a group of class-action lawyers probably will continue their effort in Federal District Court in Camden, N.J., to force Ford to recall all the vehicles, he said.
In the largest auto industry recall, U.S. and Japanese automakers asked last year that 8.8 million Japanese-made vehicles be brought in for repairs to seat belt buckles manufactured by Takata, a Japanese producer. Federal safety officials said that yesterday's recall was the largest by a single automaker.
If half to three-quarters of the vehicles are brought in for repair -- the norm for vehicle recalls -- then the ignition repairs could cost the company $200 million to $300 million.
Pub Date: 4/26/96