DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. announced the biggest voluntary safety recall ever by a single auto maker on Thursday, a callback of 8.7 million cars and trucks equipped with a defective ignition switch that can cause steering-column fires, even in turned-off vehicles.
The recall is exceeded only by last year's recall of 8.8 million vehicles equipped with faulty seat belts in autos made by 10 different manufacturers.
The action comes as Ford faces growing litigation, adverse publicity and regulatory investigations into more than 23 million Ford vehicles built between 1984 and 1993 claimed to be subject to the fire problem. The recall covers only certain vehicles from the 1988-1993 model years.
Ford said its own probe had uncovered complaints of 1,100 ignition-switch fires in the United States and 900 in Canada, although it questioned the validity of many of the claims.
Many fires involved vehicles that were parked and had been shut off for hours. In some cases, autos caught fire in garages and damaged the owner's home as well as the vehicle. There are 28 injuries--all minor--attributed to the fires.
Typical is the case of Stephen Kirby, whose 1987 Lincoln Town Car erupted into flames as he was entertaining friends in his Los Angeles home last year.
"The fire started in the steering column area, went up the dash and into the engine compartment," said Kirby, a disabled Vietnam veteran. "It destroyed the car."
The recall, which was applauded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could cost an estimated $200 million to Ford and its supplier, though some said the cost could run much higher.
The total will depend on the number of vehicles returned for servicing. The company has set aside reserves to pay for the recall, which should have no material impact on earnings, Ford officials said.
Although not all Fords are affected, the sheer volume of the recall has some dealers talking about setting up daily quotas for the ignition work to avoid flooding their service departments.
"We'll probably put in an appointment system and limit this to 10 to 15 cars a day at first," said Debbie McCann , a service writer at Ted Jones Ford in Buena Park, Calif.
Like several other service specialists, McCann said she has never had a customer bring in a car with the ignition problem that prompted the recall, "but I've seen the part and I understand that it can happen."
Consumer advocates said the recall was a positive step, but criticized Ford for not including another 14 million mostly older vehicles equipped with the same or nearly identical switch.
"This is just a damage-control recall to limit their liability," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group. "Ford should recall all these vehicles, not just 8 million."
Ford, however, insisted that the other vehicles had a slightly different switch than the one found to be defective or had a lower electrical load that made them less susceptible to the problem.
"We believe we have captured the appropriate population of vehicles," said Ford spokeswoman Francine Romine.
The recall covers these Ford and Lincoln-Mercury models: Escort, EXP, Mustang, Tempo, Topaz, Thunderbird, Cougar, Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, Lincoln Town Car, Aerostar van, Bronco sport utility vehicle and F-Series pickup truck.
The switch in question, which was manufactured by United Technologies Automotive of Dearborn, Mich., was redesigned in 1993 and is not used in any Ford vehicles built since then.
Despite the recall, Ford said only a "very small number of vehicles" is likely to have defective switches that can short-circuit and experience overheating, smoke and fire in the steering column.
Federal regulators said the recall will largely end their investigation although they will continue to assess whether other vehicles should be included.
"We think this resolves a substantial part of what we were investigating," said Michael Brownlee, the NHTSA's associate administrator for safety assurance. "But we will monitor that the fix works and the right population of vehicles is included."
The company said owners will be notified of the recall by mail and should arrange to have the switch replaced at no cost. Ford said normally it would cost an individual about $100 to replace the switch, but its cost will be much lower. An adequate supply of switches will be immediately available to dealers, Ford said.
Federal regulators first began a narrow investigation of Ford switches in 1992 when they received complaints of fires in 1989 Crown Victoria sedans. That probe was closed with a determination that the failure rate was too low to warrant further action. A second probe involving 1986-88 F-Series trucks was concluded the same way in 1994.
The recall grew out of a third investigation begun in 1994 by the NHTSA involving 1990 Escort subcompacts.