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Ford Expands Head-Gasket Fix Program

May 03, 2000|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ford Motor Co., recognizing the extent of consumer outrage over the defective 3.8-liter V-6 engine in a wide range of its vehicles, took another major step last week toward extending warranty coverage to owners saddled with costly blown head gaskets.

The world's No. 2 auto maker said it would cover repairs on the engines of 300,000 additional vehicles, going back to 1994 and 1995 model years. The action marks the third time Ford has expanded warranty coverage for the 3.8-liter V-6 engine, which has established a reputation for head-gasket failures that can cost owners up to $4,000 in repairs.

Thus far, Ford has extended coverage to seven years or 100,000 miles on more than a million vehicles, marking one of the largest such actions in industry history. The company said it did so "in the interest of customer satisfaction."

Ford has declined to disclose the cost of the warranty extensions, but consumer advocates and mechanical experts say that as many as half of the covered vehicles are experiencing engine failures by 100,000 miles. Based on typical repair bills cited by owners, the warranty extension could eventually cost the company anywhere from $800 million to $2 billion.

Still, hundreds of thousands of owners who have suffered blown gaskets in their pre-1994 3.8-liter Fords, Mercurys and Lincolns remain unprotected. Ford executives say their policy covers those model years with the greatest rate of failures.

The most recent move covers rear-wheel-drive cars that use the 3.8-liter engine, namely the Ford Mustang, Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar. Earlier, the company extended coverage on its Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable, Lincoln Continental and Ford Windstar models.

Ford has come under stiff criticism, not only from consumer organizations, but also from many of its own customers. More than 300 of them have written or called Highway 1 in response to previous Your Wheels columns to lambaste the performance of the 3.8-liter engine, a workhorse that was offered as optional equipment on many Ford vehicles.

Ford is adamant that it will not consider any further expansion of its warranty program, though many complaints have involved vehicles built before 1994 and thus are not included.

"We are not going to do this again," spokesman Mike Vaughn said. "This is it. The issue is pretty much closed at this point."

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But individuals who complain loudly enough may still get some consideration. Take, for example, the case of retired journalism professor Bob Scheibel of Woodland Hills. After he complained to his local dealer and to customer service at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., the company agreed to cover his 1993 Mercury Sable's blown head gasket. Scheibel said he has not yet received the money.

Ford is still facing class-action lawsuits by the Sandusky, Ohio, law firm Murray & Murray and by Chicago law firm Horowitz, Horowitz & Associates.

"The decision to extend the warranty had nothing to do with the pending lawsuits," Vaughn said. "We continue to believe there is no basis for the lawsuits and they should be dismissed."

A spokesman for Horowitz, Horowitz said the law firm "doesn't believe for a minute" that its suit did not prompt Ford to extend its warranties.

Meanwhile, it is unclear what effect the 3.8-liter engine problems are having on sales of such Fords as the Windstar minivan, Vaughn acknowledged.

Independent sales data indicate that Ford has not been hurt dramatically.

J.D. Power & Associates, the Agoura Hills auto research firm, said Windstar sales in January were essentially unchanged from those of a year earlier at 14,929 units nationwide. February sales were similarly flat, though March sales showed a sharp increase of 25%. Overall sales of light trucks, which include minivans, were up 7.5% in March.

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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Resources

The Ford warranty extensions cover blown head gaskets in 3.8-liter V-6 engines in the 1994 and '95 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, the 1994 Lincoln Continental, the 1995 Ford Windstar and the 1994-95 Ford Mustang, Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar.

Owners of the covered vehicles can seek reimbursement of their head-gasket repair bills at their dealers or obtain more information by calling or writing Ford Motor Co., Customer Assistance Center, P.O. Box 6248, Mail Drop 3NE-E, Dearborn, MI 48121; (800) 392-3673.

Motorists who have suffered blown head gaskets in Ford, Mercury or Lincoln 3.8-liter V-6 vehicles that are not part of the announced warranty extension can voice their concerns to Ford's Customer Assistance Center or to the Center for Auto Safety, which has petitioned Ford to extend warranty coverage for head gaskets to all of its 1988-95 cars and trucks with the 3.8-liter V-6.

The group asks that readers interested in adding their stories to its case file write (but not call), specifying their make, model, year, number of miles at which they suffered the blown head gasket and the cost of repair. Write to: Center for Auto Safety, 1825 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20009.

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