Reprinted from The Safety Record, Volume 7, Issue 3, November 2010
WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an unusual move, Ford Motor Company announced that it would buy back some older model Windstars with failed rear axles. That leaves one Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) probe into corrosion complaints for the minivan closed and one to go.
The rare buyback, limited to older models, follows on the heels of the automaker’s August recall for 462,750 minivans from the 1998-2003 model years for rear axle failures. The recall covered vans sold or registered in 21 Salt Belt states. The replacement parts apparently wouldn’t be ready until next year, and, in the meantime, Ford was providing owners of Windstars bearing compromised axles with rental vehicles until the new axles arrive. The buyback is an interim measure; Ford is not buying any vehicles purchased after Aug. 26.
“At our discretion, the remedy we offer may involve repurchasing a customer’s vehicle at a price we believe either matches or exceeds market value,” the company said in a customer Q & A filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The buyback may prove to be the cheaper course of action. Windstars with broken axles are apparently piling up at dealership lots, where they are stored for $38 a day, awaiting the replacement parts.
The corrosion complaints began to trickle into the agency in 2000, when consumers began complaining that the rear axle of 1996 and 1995 minivans would snap. By 2008, the complaints began to pick up the pace. By 2009, Windstar owners were filing complaints with the agency like this:
“I was driving down the interstate going 55 mph in a construction zone. I was in front of a semi truck. I had my 3 young kids in the van. The van started feeling funny and I was looking for a safe place to pull off, when the rear axle snapped in 2 pieces. This caused my van to start to spin. We were almost hit by the semi and then we almost went off the road where I am afraid we probably would have rolled over. We ended up facing the wrong way in the passing lane which thankfully had construction barrels up so it was closed otherwise we would have probably been hit head on. The tow truck driver, the semi truck driver, the police officer, my husband and my father all said that they had never seen this before and that rear axles just don’t snap that way. We now have to replace basically everything in the rear of my van. As we were doing research to price the replacement parts we found that there were many stories just like ours and that it had been reported to Ford to no avail. Mechanics are saying that the problem seems to be near the wheel where water can get in but can’t get out so they are rusting from the inside out and snapping.”
NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) didn’t begin to evaluate these corrosion complaints until May 2010 when it opened a Preliminary Evaluation into 234 complaints of rear axle failure in Model Year 1999 through 2003 Ford Windstar minivans. Two allegations resulted in minor crashes; more than half of the complaints involved a complete fracture of the axle beam. Fifty-six complaints indicated that the axle failure occurred at speeds of 40 miles per hour or greater.
ODI came to the same conclusion as the unnamed mechanic in the complaint above. According to the Preliminary Evaluation, the rear axle beam in the Windstar uses an inverted “U” channel design, where road salt slurry can collect. The corrosive chemicals eventually weaken the axle until it snaps. The agency reported that nearly all of the complaints involved complete fractures.
In a July response, Ford defended itself by citing overall cracked axle complaint rates of .54 per 1,000. It also noted that the complaints were emanating from cold-weather states in which the minivans were subjected to the corrosive effects of road salt. Ford argued that actually, considering the age and mileage of the vehicles, the components had performed well. Two months later, however, Ford announced a recall and the agency closed the PE.
Also in July, ODI opened a new PE on corroding Windstars. This investigation centered on corrosion of the front-sub-frame, which corrode to failures while the vehicle is in motion. The agency had received 87 complaints from owners of 1999-2003 models, many of whom lived in Salt-Belt states and alleged that “the corrosion would occur on the right side, where the lower control arm is attached to the sub-frame, resulting in a loss-of-control or run-off-the-road crash.” Some drivers also complained that the failure occurred while the car was in motion, and many complained that the axle would break without warning.
Ford’s response to these sub-frame complaints was much like its response to the cracking axles. The automaker said, again, that the complaints were coming from Salt Belt states and that Ford had “found a low rate of reports alleging corrosion-related cracking or fracture of the front subframe on the subject vehicles. The rate is particularly low when considering the age of the vehicles (some have been in service for up to 12 years) and the tens of billions of miles they have accumulated.”
At the agency’s request, Ford had analyzed the Windstar’s controllability at various speeds, using different vehicle maneuvers, such as turning. Its tests found that moderate braking improved controllability. It also found that the vehicle remains controllable in static and low-speed situations where the sub-frame breaks.
Ford summed its findings:
“Vehicle testing simulating a separation of the rear attachment of the lower control arm from the front sub-frame has shown that with moderate brake application the vehicle can be steered and safely stopped. Vehicle testing simulating a fracture of the front subframe in the area of the rear body mount has shown that the vehicle remains completely controllable. Years of real world data, including only two accident allegations pertaining to the lower control arm and only one accident allegation pertaining to the engine cradle, in combination with the very low rate of reports demonstrate that corrosion-related fracture of the front subframe does not pose an unreasonable risk to safety.”
That investigation remains open.
Ford’s strategy to focus on the post-failure controllability of the vehicle and argue that the complaint rate is low is one of its default defenses. Ford has employed it in previous defect investigations involving failures of the Hydro-boost power steering in F-Series trucks; Firestone tires on Explorers; and coil springs on Taurus and Sable vehicles.
During the Explorer/Firestone tires scandal, Ford successfully shifted the blame to Firestone and claimed that “Explorers have a margin of safety ‘as designed’ to accommodate, to a reasonable level, component failures including tread separations.” Firestone attempted to push back and point to the Explorer saying “The Ford Explorer has a problem, and we’re going to show why, and back it up with data and testing.” Firestone’s attempt was ill-fated. NHTSA decided against an investigation into Explorer handling issues post-tread separation. Meanwhile, studies from Quality Control Systems Corp. (“NHTSA’s Secret Data and Ford Explorers in Fatal, Post-recall, Tire-related Crashes”) found that since the tire recalls were completed, there have been more reported fatalities related to tire failures than there had been up to the time the defect was first given wide publicity.
In 2000 NHTSA opened investigation into 1999 – 2000 Ford F-Series trucks with Hydro-boost for loss of power assist to the steering and brakes when they are used simultaneously. Power steering assist is lost or severely degraded under braking in the Hydro-boost system, which is intentionally designed to restrict the power assist to the steering. NHTSA’s testing from 50 mph (steer and left/right steering wheel input to simulate emergency lane change) resulted in steering wheel torque levels up to 300 to 400 in/lbs. in the F-350 with Hydro-boost – a level at which most drivers cannot turn the steering wheel – compared to 50 in/lbs. in the vacuum brake version of the vehicle. Despite these findings NHTSA closed the Ford Hydro-boost investigation without a defect finding… but the agency stated that it was “concerned that Hydro-boost equipped vehicles are less than ideal designs that could present difficult vehicle handling challenges under such emergency situations and may represent an increased (but infrequent) risk to safety.”
In Nov. 2008, Ford defended itself in the latest in a series of coil-spring fracture defect investigations by conceding that the failures occur, but not at a high rate, and not in a way that poses any risk to drivers:
“In fact, the number of reports received by Ford that even alleges any type of safety concern is extremely low. Even with a publicly announced campaign on similar vehicles, over 1.5 million subject vehicles sold (with tens of billions of cumulative miles) Ford has received only four allegations of minor ‘accidents.’ None of these involve collisions with other vehicles and no police reports were filed, insofar as Ford is aware, suggesting that the allegations are not really describing ‘accidents.’… As previously stated, the preponderance of real world data suggests front coil spring fracture and tire puncture, in these vehicles, presents no unreasonable safety risk.”