In what would be the largest action of its kind, the federal government is close to ordering the recall virtually of every Ford car and truck manufactured with an automatic transmission between 1973 and 1978 - a total of 9 million autos.
After reports by the independent Center for Auto Safety last year cited a dozen deaths allegedly caused by the transmissions in those cars jumping from park into reverse by themselves, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began an investigation.
Sources close to the probe now say the investigation is completed and a decision on the recall is expected shortly - possible within a week.
In a letter sent to NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook yesterday, Center for Auto Safety director Clarence Ditlow chided the agency for taking so long to decide on a recall.
"If NHTSA had ordered a recall earlier this year," Ditlow wrote, "then Adrian Barker of Bernardsville, N.J. might not have died when his Ford Galaxie jumped from park into reverse, running up on his chest and literally suffocating him. Tragically, this accident occured on March 23, 1978, just ond day after the Center released a Consumer Advisory warning 1966-78 Ford owners to take precautions against just such accidents."
"To delay a defect finding any longer will only lead to more deaths and serious injuries in these vehicles," he said.
NHTSA sources say Claybrook was briefed a month ago by staffers working on the probe, but sent them back to do more work on the project. A second briefing, which is expected to include a call by the staff for a recall, is planned for next week. The actual recall order would require Claybrook's approval.
Although the Center's original charges were made about every Ford Motor Company car manufactured with either the C-6 or FMX automatic transmission since 1966 - some 19 million vehicles, NHTSA's probe has been limited to vehicles manufactured after 1973. The statue of limitations on such recalls, however, is eight years.
According to Ditlow, "the large number of vehicles involved and the high likelihood of accident, death and injury make this the most serious possible defect since the record recall of 6.8 million 1965-69 Chevrolets for defective engine mounts that caused uncontrolled acceleration." In the Ford case, Ditlow cited more than 100 accidents in recent years, including 12 deaths.
NHTSA sources say, however, that the Ford case is a difficult one "because the human factor is involved" in the problems. The source did not elaborate.
The cars involved are practically all automatic transmission cars with 300 cubic inch or larger engines and Ford light trucks with 350 or more cubic inch engines.
A Ford spokesman reached last night said the company would not comment on a possible recall until it is ordered officially.