Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. agreed yesterday to recall 10 million of its trouble-prone "500" series steel-belted radial tires, the largest tire recall in history and one of the costliest of any kind.
Estimates of the recall costs range from $100 million to more than $200 million.
Under a negotiated settlement with federal transportation officials, Firestone said it would recall a large portion of its 1975 and 1976 production of 500 tires and replace them, free of charge, with Firestone 721 steel belted radials or some other Firestone Line at the customer's request.
In announcing the agreement, Transportation Secretary Brock Adams estimated that about 7.5 million of the tires to be recalled are still in service. Others have been discarded or already turned into dealers for replacement.
But the leaders of several consumer groups, clearly unhappy about the compromise, accused the government of selling out the consumer.
Consumer activist Ralph Nader said the government should have required Firestone to recall all its 500 radials and pay the maximum civil fine of $800,000 for a government-ordered recall. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of Nader's Center for Auto Safety, called the agreement "disastrous." Both said they were considering legal action against the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, the federal agency that negotiated the settlement.
In response, Adams said the government decided to work out a voluntary agreement with Firestone instead of ordering a recall - and inviting a protracted court battle - in order to "get those tires off the road."
The agreement took several months of difficult and often heated talks. Both sides yesterday showed signs of strain.
Adams hastily called a press conference in the morning to charge that Firestone had been stalling in signing the agreement. He threatened to take the company to court if it did not sign by the end of the day.
Shortly thereafter, Firestone chairman Richrd Riley called a press conference in Akron, Ohio to announce his company would sign - but without conceding the 500 was hazardous.
"We're agreeing to the recall because there has been so much publicity," Riley declared. "The thought that there is a defect has been implanted so strongly that we have to convince our customers that we are interested in their welfare." Later, he added, "I think the best solution is to get this behind us."
There was some confusion over how the flood of recalls is going to be handled. Joan Claybrook, head of NHTSA, encouraged tire owners to go to their Firestone dealers soon for replacements. "There are a lot of 721s at dealers now," she said at a press conference. "I would suggest people go."
But a spokesman for Firestone said "orderly procedures" were being established "to schedule appointments with dealers."
The agreement itself is complicated by the existence of several different kinds of Firestone 500 tires. Essentially, though, if you:
Have a 500 steel-belted radial with a five-rib tread design, you are entitled to a free replacement if the tire was produced prior to January 1, 1977.
Have a radial with a seven-rib design, you are entitled to a free replacement if the tire was produced prior to May 1, 1976 and purchased after September 1, 1975.
Have Firestone TPC steel-belted radials (these are original-equipment tires made by Firestone for General Motors cars) and if these tires meet the above criteria for five-rib and seven-rib designs, you are entitled to a free replacement.
Have some private label type brands made by Firestone, including the "Grappler 8000" sold by Montgomery Ward and Shell Oil Co.'s Super Shell Steel Radials, you are entitled to a free replacement.
Have already traded in defective 500s and paid part of the cost of a new tire, you are entitled to receive a cash payment refund.
In addition to these provisions which are covered by yesterday's agreement, Firestone has offered on its own to exchange every Firestone 500 purchased before September 1, 1975 for a new tire at half the price of the new tire.
To find out the week and year of manufacture of your tire, look at the last three digits of the Deparment of Transportation identification number that appears on either the outside or inside sidewall of each tire. For example, the digit "385" would indicate the tire was made in the 38th week of 1975.
Firestone had been seeking to limit the recall mainly to earlier production of the 500 tire, saying that its production problems were largely solved for later output - a contention still hotly disputed by consumer groups. The company began phasing out production of the series in mid-1976, ending all production early this year.
A Firestone spokesman said the tire company has already begun sending recall notices to tire owners. But the company has conceded that its purchase records may be incomplete.