The Ford Motor Co., where "Quality is Job 1," had a couple of bad days last year in the production of components for its 1983-model cars and trucks.
The results could cost the nation's second largest automaker up to $2 million in recall repairs and an incalculable setback in its massive public relations campaign to persuade consumers that it makes quality products.
Earlier this month, Ford issued two separate service recall notices to the owners of 140,000 of its 1983 model-cars and trucks that might have defective parts in steering columns and transmission linkages. Vehicles with the bad parts might roll free when transmission indicators are in "park." The affected cars and trucks have either regular automatic transmissions or the more fuel-efficient automatic-overdrive transmissions.
Ford still is fighting legal charges that it built 20 million cars and trucks between 1970 and 1980 with automatic transmissions that could slip from "park" to "reverse" -- an allegedly injury-causing defect.
How did this latest recall happen to a company that now publicly prides itself in defect prevention -- a firm that uses such phrases as "statistical quality control" and "supplier quality assurance" to describe its new commitment to excellence?
According to Ford, the problems leading to the latest recalls involve tiny parts and occurred within days of each other last fall in the factories of two of the automaker's 20,000 suppliers. Ford will not identify the suppliers."Our attitude is that we like to keep our suppliers working positively," says J. F. terHorst, Ford's chief Washington spokesman. "We don't like to dump on them when the chips are down. In the end, we were responsible, we have to take the rap."
One of the recall notices, covering an estimated 40,000 cars, has been traced to apparent poor performance by a single worker at the supplier plant manufacturing a 50-cent part the size of thumb-tip called a "transmission control selector tube retainer clip." The clip attaches the selector tube, which covers levers used to operate the gearshift indicator, to a portion of the steering column housing. If the retainer clip falls off, the gear selection indicator may read "park" when the transmission is in "neutral" or, in some cases, it may read "neutral" when the transmission is in "drive."
An investigation by Ford, according to Feb. 15 letter it wrote the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, showed that the clip defect exists because a company supplier "had produced one lot of retainer clips that were incorrectly processed by a new operator during the heat treat operation." The improper heat treatment, Ford said, had made the clip too weak to withstand the stress of the repeated use of the gearshift mechanism.
Faulty retainer clips are suspected in the following 1983-model Ford passenger cars equipped with regular automatic transmissions and steering column-mounted gearshift indicators: Ford LTD and Fairmont, Mercury Grand Marquis, Marquis and Zephyr, and the Lincoln Town Car, Continental and Mark VI -- all produced between Nov. 29, 1982, through Dec. 17, 1982. Quality inspectors at Ford's Indianapolis assembly plant discovered the problem on Nov. 22, 1982, when they found a loose clip on a steering column.
The other recall, affecting 100,000 cars, stems from an improperly heat-treated retainer pin in a device called the "parking pawl actuating rod." The parking pawl prevents gear movement, thus immobilizing the car when the gearshift indicator is on "park." The retainer pin helps to keep the parking pawl in place. If the pin fractures, the pawl does not engage the parking gear, thus allowing the car to roll free if the parking brakes are not set.
Improperly heat-treated pins -- first discovered in company cars leased by two unidentified Ford executives -- tend to fracture, Ford officials say. The 1983-model Fords with this possible problem include the Crown Victoria, Thunderbird and the LTD. Also included are the Mercury Grand Marquis, Cougar and Marquis, the Lincoln Town Car, Mark VI and Continental; and F-Series light trucks, Econoline vans and Club Wagons -- all equipped with automatic-overdrive transmissions and produced from Dec. 14, 1982, through Feb. 18, 1983.
According to a March 2 letter to NHTSA explaining the problem, the retainer-pin defect "most likely occurred as a result of changing the sources for retainer-pin heat treating."
Mike Davis, spokesman for Ford's parts and services division, said the defective retainer pins were made by a sub-supplier. He said many of Ford's suppliers contracted out work to sub-suppliers.
"Heat treating always is a problem, particularly when you're dealing with smaller parts. You always run a risk of coming up with a part that is too hard or too soft, in layman's terms," he said.
But what about all of the new "supplier quality assurance" steps, the defect-prevention checking system?
Something just went wrong, Davis said, adding that top Ford executives "are grilling" their staffs and suppliers to determine how the defective parts slipped through the checking points.
"It's a matter of looking at the whole system and deciding if the standards were adequate," Davis said. He said the review also includes a study of training procedures used by suppliers.
Ford, in the past, has canceled some contracts with suppliers of bad parts. But Davis declined speculation on whether the company would take similar action in the latest cases.
"Nobody wanted to produce bad parts. Nobody wanted to put them in cars. Our overall objective, now, is to get the cars fixed," Davis said.
Ford's latest recalls come at a time when the company appeared to be making progress in persuading consumers that they were improving the quality of its cars.
According to J. David Power III, president of J.D. Power & Associates, a Westlake Village, Calif. auto industry polling an analysis firm: "We've found in our studies that Ford indeed has improved its quality, and that they have improved the most, among domestic automakers, in the last two years." Ford's U.S. competitors do not dispute the claim, although some of them privately say that Ford's quality-improvement rating is higher because the company had a longer way to go.
Power said his firm's findings are supported by other independent industry surveys that say Ford's 1983 models have a 59 percent improvement in quality over passenger cars and trucks made by the company in 1980. The surveys are based on the number of customer complaints about "things gone wrong" with a new car or truck in the first three months of ownership. A higher quality rating means fewer complaints.
But "even though Ford has gotten its act together and is able to demonstrate improvement in quality, its image and those of other domestic automakers, has slipped in the last two years," Power said.
"Ford is still suffering from problems that it had four or five years ago," Davis said. He said "buyers of Ford cars see the difference in quality," but that "it takes time to convince people" outside of the showrooms "that things have changed."
The latest recalls "certainly hurt," Power said. But he said Ford would have been hurt even more if it had done nothing, or moved too slowly.
"The real image problems that domestic automakers have come from the problems, the squeaks, the rough idles, that never get corrected," Power said.