WIXOM, Mich. — Rows and rows of newly minted Ford Thunderbirds stand idle, swathed in protective film and ready for delivery--but going nowhere for now.
Ford Motor Co. hoped a flawless launch of its $40,000 T-Bird would help restore a reputation that has been battered over the last year by troubled model launches and allegations about the safety of its Explorer sport-utility vehicle.
The Thunderbird was due in early summer, but Ford suspended deliveries and was forced to shut down its Wixom Assembly Plant for two weeks after it discovered a defect in an engine cooling system. The company put the plant back online Thursday but said it would not ship the cars until replacement parts arrive.
The launch is underscoring the quality problems that have beset the world's No. 2 auto maker in recent months and plagued the launch of the three Ford vehicles that preceded it.
The new Thunderbird was meant to evoke memories of one of Ford's most coveted models, the 1950-era two-seat convertible with an optional hardtop roof and round porthole windows. Ford held itself to exacting standards, hoping a perfect Thunderbird launch would prove it remains one of the industry's best auto makers.
Instead, only a few cars have been delivered, and Ford is intercepting cars in transit to return them to Wixom to replace a faulty cooling fan unit that caused the engines to overheat.
Analysts say that to Ford's credit, the company is making every effort to ensure the cars are defect-free when they are delivered. The company has gone to great lengths to prove its commitment to quality.
"It's an icon car. We want to make sure it's perfect," said Jason Vines, Ford's vice president of communications.
Suppliers Under Heavy Pressure
Since the 1970s, Ford and the rest of the U.S. auto industry have been waging a difficult battle to close the quality gap with foreign companies. Ford, in particular, led the charge by domestic manufacturers to improve quality, but it is now faltering all over again.
"This is clearly a hallmark vehicle, a 'halo' vehicle. They absolutely cannot afford any quality issues or glitches on it," said Joseph Phillippi, a longtime Wall Street auto industry analyst. "It's absolutely critical that they launch without a hitch. . . . To have it fall on its face at its introduction is a major issue."
But it's hardly the only issue Ford faces. The auto maker is stumbling by virtually every yardstick of automotive success: profit, market share, quality, bonuses, credit rating and public image.
Costly tire replacement programs and lawsuit settlements resulting from the Firestone tire debacle have cost Ford more than $1 billion and wiped out profit in the second quarter. This month, Ford scaled back its profit outlook for this year and said it would cut as many as 5,000 jobs to try to halt the decline in its profitability and market share. This week the company also said it is eliminating bonuses for its 6,000 top white-collar workers.
Ford was forced to halt production of the Thunderbird, begun only last month, to fix the overheating problem.
"It's unbelievable. They've never done something like this--shut down a whole plant--for the sake of quality," said a worker outside the factory in this town just northwest of Detroit. "Before, they'd just keep making them and then try to fix them later."
As recently as the 1980s and early '90s, auto makers were notorious for letting defects through and then, if problems arose with consumers, letting warranties take care of them.
That Ford is taking the unprecedented measure with the T-Bird underscores how hard the company is trying to restore its reputation for workmanship. In a recent survey of new-vehicle buyers by J.D. Power & Associates, Ford fell from third place to seventh--or last--in a ranking of the top auto makers' initial quality.
Quality and reliability are where Ford is concentrating its efforts to boost sales, which have lagged beyond the slip in the overall U.S. market. Ford's overall volume was down 11.7% in the first seven months of this year, while the overall market dipped 4.8%.
"There's a renewed intensity on quality at Ford because it's been an area that's led to issues of consumer confidence in Ford vehicles," said Greg Salchow, an automotive analyst with the investment bank Raymond James & Co. in Detroit.
"When you have three, four or five recalls, it creates doubts about the vehicles," he said, referring to troubled launches of the Ford Focus compact car, Escape compact sport-utility vehicle and redesigned 2002 Explorer mid-size SUV.
Suppliers are under heavy pressure to assure a flawless launch for the Thunderbird.
At a meeting in mid-March, Ford executives met with scores of top suppliers to the M205 program--as the Thunderbird is known internally--for a status report on preparations to build the car.