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Still Fuming Over Fiery Switches

March 06, 1998|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ford Motor Co. made the largest voluntary safety recall in history in 1996 when it called back 8.33 million vehicles with defective ignition switches that can cause fires--even when the power is off.

But the recall did not end matters there. The issue remains highly contentious, triggering a major lawsuit recently by State Farm Insurance to recover its costs involving fire claims by Ford owners.

The Ford recall covered a wide variety of Ford products made from 1988 to 1993, ranging from the pricey Lincoln Town Car to the lowly Ford Escort.

What is telling about the recall is that Ford used similar or identical components in its lowest priced domestically built car as it did in its top-of-the-line luxury cars.

This practice goes to the heart of one of the most frequent complaints that mechanics have about newer cars, not only Fords but most domestics and imports: flimsy components.

Replacing switches and locks is becoming increasingly common on cars, items that used to last the life of the vehicle. The Ford switch, for example, is a sliding assembly made out of plastic with brass contacts.

Ford officials say they stand behind the integrity of their vehicles and the components in them. And they defend the use of common components in luxury and economy models, noting that at one time Ford had 19 different cigarette lighters and now has only one.

So far, 60% of the vehicles Ford recalled have been returned to dealers to have the work done. That leaves up to 3.4 million vehicles with faulty switches still on the road.

In its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, State Farm charges that Ford has systematically refused to pay the company for insured fires caused by the defective switch.

State Farm said it has paid out $440,000 in claims involving 80 fires in California alone. Ford said two years ago that it had learned of about 2,000 fires in the vehicles being recalled. There have been 28 injuries, all minor, attributed to the fires.

A fire investigator for the insurance industry said he believes the problem with the Ford switch was that the hot and neutral electrical contacts were placed too close together.

Over time, grease and dirt bridge the gap between the electrical contacts and allow current to pass between the contacts.

The result is slow heating of the plastic, which changes the plastic material and eventually can make it more flammable. Indeed, some Fords catch fire even when nobody is in the car.

The ignition switch on the Ford is not located near the key lock on the steering column, but rather near the floor at the bottom of the steering column. When a driver inserts a key and turns the lock, it operates a rod that travels down the steering column and activates the switch.

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* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006 or e-mail Ralph.Vartabedian@latimes.com.

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