When the Office of Defects Investigation finally opened a Preliminary Evaluation into rear axle failure in Windstar minivans, Ford Motor Company argued that the problem was no big deal. The fractures only struck a handful of vans in the Salt-Belt states. The vans were older and had significant mileage. The components had performed well, considering. Besides, Ford said, an axle failure while the vehicle was in motion would not result in a catastrophic crash:
“The preponderance of real world data suggests the vehicle remains controllable even in the event of a complete rear axle fracture. The vast majority (95%) of reports received by Ford alleging a cracked or completely fractured rear axle do not indicate any concern for loss of vehicle control. Additionally, some customers note that there was indication of an unusual symptom, such as changes in vehicle ride or noise while driving, for days or weeks before the axle fractured,” Ford wrote to ODI in July.
“Ford recognizes fracture of the rear axle results in significant customer dissatisfaction as the repair cost can be high, and customers whose vehicles require a rear axle repair are understandably agitated at the prospect of paying hundreds of dollars in replacement expenses. However, years of real world data on vehicles that have been in service for up to 12 years clearly supports a conclusion that a fracture of the rear axle in the subject vehicles is not expected to result in a loss of vehicle control, and the likelihood of a related accident or injury is extremely low. In fact, over three-quarters (80%) of the reports received by Ford are simply requests for financial assistance with the repair.”
Then, on October 15, the unexpected happened. Sean Bowman, a 28-year-old Coast Guard veteran and father of two young daughters died, when the rear axle of his 2001 Windstar suddenly failed and his vehicle crashed into a building in Whitman, Massachusetts. Bowman’s passenger was seriously injured and remains hospitalized.
By this time, the complaints were in the hundreds and the vehicle had been recalled. But, Ford had been so unprepared to deal with the issue that unremedied Windstars were piling up on dealership lots awaiting new axles that had not been put in the pipeline. The recall remedy rate was 13 percent. The Bowmans received their recall notice three days after the crash and six weeks after the campaign had been announced.
The chronology of the identification and remedy of this defect suggests a failure that is much greater than the axles. Sean Bowman’s widow, Justine, was so upset by the sheer sluggishness of the entire enterprise, that the family took the extraordinary step of reaching out to the media raise the problem’s profile.
“We did not hear about the recall until after the accident,” Justine said. “We started doing research and when we saw that NHTSA issued a statement there were 575,000 recalled and only 75,000 had been brought in, we knew that people don’t understand how serious this really is. So, I took steps to get the word out there: it has killed someone.”
The Bowman family issued a press release to warn Windstar owners of the dangers, and the story was picked up by a number of news outlets. The agency didn’t open an investigation into Windstar axle failures until May 13, about a week after New York Times’ Wheels columnist Chris Jensen wrote a piece entitled: Ford Windstar Axles Bring Hundreds of Complaints, but No Inquiry. By May 5, the agency had more than 200 complaints of rear axle failures, but had not opened a Preliminary Evaluation. The article rebuked DOT Secretary Ray LaHood for assuring Congress during the Toyota hearings that NHTSA carefully reviews every consumer complaint. A comment from John Arout, a Staten Island Windstar owner who experienced an axle failure on his 2001 Windstar this year, provided the kicker:
“I don’t know what N.H.T.S.A. he is talking about.” Arout said.
Ford’s July 20 response to the agency took the tack that the problem wasn’t that bad. In specific cases in which a failure and a crash were alleged, Ford maintained it knew little about the incident and therefore couldn’t comment on it.
(Much of Ford’s public response has not been posted by the agency, so a view of what was turning up in its internal database was not possible by press time. Manufacturers generally receive 10 complaints to every one received by NHTSA.)
During the three-month probe, the Vehicle Testing and Research Center ran a field test simulating an axle failure at 35 mph. The Windstar lost one rear wheel entirely and experienced severe two-wheel tip-up. If the test van hadn’t been equipped with outriggers, it would have suffered a rollover.
On July 27, the VTRC presented its findings to the Ford Safety Office – perhaps in response to Ford’s contention that all of the complaints were merely disgruntled owners seeking recompense for an expensive repair and to answers such as: “The vast majority (95%) of reports received by Ford alleging a cracked or completely fractured rear axle do not indicate any concern for loss of vehicle control.” Or, perhaps, because under the TREAD Act, automakers are only obligated to provide recall remedies free of charge for vehicles and components for up to 10 years old. Some models in the potential recall population, by statute, did not have to be remedied. This may diminish NHTSA’s authority, but there is ample precedent in which automakers have recalled their products outside of the recall statute.
The agency presentation counted 473 VOQs on rear axle failures; 6 alleged crashes; 1 rollover; 2 alleged injuries; and numerous loss of control incidents.
In August, with a total of 891 complaints, Ford threw in the towel and announced a recall. The campaign covered 462,750 minivans from the 1998-2003 model years.
Ford’s initial communications with its customers, however, belied the severe consequences of an axle failure while underway, as depicted in the test video. In an October Owner Notification letter, the automaker described the problem thus:
“On your vehicle, the rear axle could potentially fracture when operated in high corrosion areas (where salt is used on the roadways during winter months) for an extended period of time. If the rear axle should completely fracture, vehicle handling may be affected which could increase the risk of a crash.”
It also suggested that the problem was not widespread: “We believe the vast majority of vehicles will not have cracked axles and can be reinforced when parts are available.”
The company, however, did not have the repair kits available. And by the fall, Windstars with broken axles were piling up at dealership lots awaiting the replacement parts. With the new axles not due in until the spring, Ford was providing Windstar owners with rental vehicles at $38 a day. In October, as an interim measure, Ford announced that it would buy back some older models.
With replacement axles still months away from availability, a fairly low repair rate and the potential for catastrophe, the agency kicked up the pressure. In mid-November, it issued a Consumer Advisory urging Windstar owners to take their vehicles in to be inspected for signs of rear axle corrosion immediately. But the agency didn’t use the most persuasive evidence – its test video.
“Owners that have not yet had the inspection are advised to watch for potential warning signs of a cracked rear axle. Those include: top of the rear tires tilted inward (negative camber); excessive bouncing while driving; banging sound while driving over bumps; vehicle rear-end ‘fishtails.’” The agency said.
On November 30, Ford announced that it was expanding the recall to 37,000 more Windstars, in Utah and all 2003 models.
Justine Bowman feels an urgency that – until very recently – has been MIA at Ford. Had the crash happened a few hours later, her daughters, Lilly, 4, and Hope, 7, would have been in the van with their father.
“I don’t want everyone else to go through all the pain we are going through,” she said. “It’s devastating to them. They’re so little and their father’s gone. I could have lost my whole family. Someone else could lose their whole family. That’s scary and it doesn’t need to happen.”
In the meantime, ODI has another open PE on corroding Windstars. This investigation centers on corrosion of the front-sub-frame, which can fail 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 breaking 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.