As claims involving these tires mounted, Goodyear began instructing dealers about how to handle customer complaints about its light-truck tires. An independent Iowa tire dealer, who asked that his name not be used, said he was told to simply replace the tires if customers reportedtheir tire tread separated or complained about other problems, such as bulges in the tires.
The owner of a Big O Tire store in Irvine, which sells Goodyear tires, said he replaced Load Range E tires on a few customers' vehicles after receiving the same instructions from Goodyear.
Several motorists said they were told about a "recall" after complaining to Goodyear that the tread on their tires had come apart--for no apparent reason.
David F. Matuszak, a Redlands teacher, said his Load Range E tires on his 1995 Dodge Ram pickup separated on three different occasions.
Matuszak said the tread on four 16-inch Wrangler tires began peeling off after only 12,000 miles. Goodyear replaced them on a prorated basis, and a company representative told him that his tires were among a "bad batch," Matuszak said.
In July 1998, one of the replacement tires separated as he was driving on Interstate 5 in Irvine. The tire's steel belts ripped into the truck's body, causing $900 damage.
Goodyear paid for the damage, and Matuszak paid a small sum to upgrade his tires to the Goodyear Workhorse model, which separated last April as he drove on Interstate 10 in Pomona. Again, Goodyear paid for $800 body damage and replaced his tires for the third time.
"I am convinced that Goodyear is knowingly selling tires with defective designs," said Matuszak, who produced receipts and other insurance documents to corroborate his story. "These tires are time bombs waiting to explode on new victims."
Kane of Strategic Safety, the Virginia auto defects investigation firm, said he believes Goodyear has not initiated a recall because it would cost the company tens of millions of dollars to recall millions of tires.
A check of NHTSA records revealed that Goodyear has recalled tires at least four times in the last decade. Those recalls involved relatively small populations of tires--from 91 to about 500,000. In some cases, Goodyear conducted the recall even though no deaths or injuries were linked to the defective tires.
Goodyear's Perduyn said the company recalled some of its tires "because we found them to be defective. Since our Load Range E and D tires are quality, non-defective products, there is no reason for a recall."
Goodyear is fighting allegations that it has ordered a silent recall of its Load Range D tires, used mainly on recreational vehicles. A class-action suit filed in Massachusetts accuses Goodyear of failing to warn consumers that its 15-inch Marathon tires are unsafe and unsuitable for campers.
Robert Jenkins, a retired Bedford, Mass., businessman, said a Goodyear tire dealer in Florida told him that there was a "silent recall" involving the Marathon tires on his Adventure World RV and that he could replace them at a discounted price of $16.50 each.
When representatives of his trailer company told him that Goodyear was "exchanging" his tires, Jenkins contacted his attorney, who filed suit in June.
After reading a newspaper story about Jenkins' suit, other RV owners reported that they called Goodyear's customer service number and got their tires exchanged.
Even before Jenkins' suit, publications catering to owners of recreational vehicles published reports tipping off subscribers to Goodyear's exchange program.
"To say that it's not a silent recall is just not credible," said John Pentz, Jenkins' attorney. "This exchange program allows them to preempt potential lawsuits and to argue that they're not replacing these tires."
Chuck Sinclair, a Goodyear spokesman, insisted that Goodyear is not conducting a silent recall. Sinclair said the company strengthened its Marathon tires a few years ago after noticing that consumers were overloading their trailers "with customized modifications like dishwashers, air conditioners and large televisions."
"If we believe the customer is exceeding load limits, we are assisting them in putting on the more robust tire," he said. "We do not have a free replacement program in place. We handle each situation on an individual basis."
Times staff writer John O'Dell contributed to this report.