While Ford Motor Co. publicly insisted there was no basis for accusations that Ford automatic transmissions had a dangerous tendency to jump from park to reverse, the company studied at least 30 ways to fix the transmissions.
Ford considered installing buzzers and lights to warn when the transmission was not in park, copying the transmission position indicator system from the luxurious German Mercedes-Benz, and making a series of "fine-tuning" changes that eventually were incorporated in Ford transmissions last year.
Ford's efforts to fix a defect it said did not exist are detailed in thousands of pages of Ford internal documents that were made public yesterday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Also disclosed for the first time was a memo from NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook recommending that Ford recall and repair 10 million vehicles at an estimated cost of $130 million.
Claybrook was overruled by Transportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt. Instead of recalling the cars, Goldschmidt decided Ford could mail car owners a sticker for their dashboard warning that "unexpected and possibly sudden vehicle movement may occur" if the vehicle is not properly parked.
Goldschmidt has never issued a formal order rejecting the recall but has indicated that Ford could not afford to pay a $100 million repair bill at a time when the U.S. auto industry is in the midst of a devastating slump in sales and is losing billions of dollars.
The Center for Auto Safety, founded by Ralph Nader, will sue Goldschmidt to force him to order a recall, Clarence Ditlow, the center's director said yesterday.
Ditlow said the Claybrook memo is "the final proof" that Goldschmidt acted illegally by not ordering a recall after government experts determined there was a safety defact in the Ford transmissions.
Claybrook told Goldschmidt that 23,000 accidents had been linked to cars with Ford automatic transmissions that slipped from "park" into "reverse" and began to move. The accidents resulted in more than 1,500 injuries and over 100 deaths, she said.
Claybrook recommended that Ford be forced to recall all Ford vehicles made between 1973 and 1979 using the FMX, C-3 and C-4 automatic transmissions. She said the problem could be fixed by installing springs on the outside of the transmissions or equipping them with the modified parts that were put in all new Ford transmissions last year.
The Ford documents put on the public record yesterday show the company was reluctant to make any modifications that might give their cars "distinctive appearance and operating characteristics when compared to competition."
Ford Chairman Philip Caldwell personally tested a car equipped with a buzzer to warn when it was in park and "did not like it," one memo reported.
Ford has continued to insist that all the accidents involving its automatic transmissions are the drivers' fault.