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Ford Offers Safety Kit for Limo Fuel Tanks

The upgrade, same as that provided to police, comes as the firm faces a wrongful-death suit.

November 28, 2005|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

First it was police cruisers. Now it's stretch limousines.

Ford Motor Co. is offering a free safety upgrade to owners of Lincoln Town Car stretch limos: gas tank shields to reduce the risk of fires in high speed, rear-end crashes.

The move comes as Ford prepares to defend a wrongful-death case involving a fire that killed three North Carolina sisters in a Town Car stretch limo. The tank shields are the same ones Ford gave police departments three years ago after several officers died when their Crown Victoria cruisers were rammed from behind and burst into flames.

While extending the upgrade to a second type of vehicle, Ford continues to defend the safety of millions of other cars with the same fuel system -- one that rival manufacturers, and even Ford, have largely abandoned.

Cars built on Ford's "Panther platform" -- some 3 million standard Crown Victorias, Town Cars and Grand Marquises, along with about 32,000 stretch limos and 350,000 police cruisers -- have their gas tanks mounted behind the rear axle, a design that was once quite common.

Though some light trucks still feature rear-of-axle tanks, the Panthers are the only major North American passenger car line that still has them. Ford itself has been going in a different direction, most recently switching to forward-of-axle tanks for the Mustang.

Experts say tank position is not the sole consideration in a safe design, but that putting the tank in front of, or over, the axle usually affords the most protection.

"The further you are away from the crash zone, generally the better off you are," said Kennerly Digges, a former senior executive with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who now heads the Motor Vehicle Fire Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization.

For gas tanks, as in real estate, the main issues are "location, location, location," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington based consumer advocacy group. He and other critics say Ford should extend the offer of tank shields to the entire Panther line.

Ford says the cars are extremely safe, and that only features of the limos and police cruisers made the upgrade necessary.

The shields make sense for police cars, the company says, because officers spend considerable time parked along the road to write tickets or help stranded motorists and are therefore more at risk of a rear-end hit.

They also can enhance the safety of the stretch limos, which "may not be as robust in rear crashes for fuel system integrity as are regular Lincolns and regular Panther vehicles," according to deposition testimony by Jack Ridenour, a top Ford engineer, in the North Carolina wrongful death case.

The company announced the offer to limo owners in a September mailing. "Although there is no defect with your vehicle, Ford is providing an optional shield kit to enhance the rear collision performance of your vehicle," the letters said, recommending that owners install the free kit.

"Due to the increased weight and stiffness of the Town Car stretch limousine, there is an increased chance that the fuel tank may be punctured in a high speed/high energy rear collision," the letter said.

Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said it was too early to tell how strong the response would be. But an informal survey of Southern California limo services suggests that many owners still are unaware of the offer, while others think it's inadequate.

Of 11 owners or managers with Town Car stretch limos in their fleets, six said they never received a letter from Ford and didn't know about the offer until contacted by The Times.

Guy Ninio, president of Silverado Coach Co. of Woodland Hills -- one of two owners who said he'd ordered and received the kit -- blasted Ford for not covering the cost of installation, which he said could be "several hundred dollars at the minimum."

"All I have is a box full of parts," Ninio said. "Honestly, I'm very disappointed with their handling of this. This is a safety issue and these guys are basically dropping the ball and saying, 'You fix it.' "

Kinley defended Ford's decision not to cover the installation cost. "Keep in mind that this is a voluntary customer satisfaction program," she said in a written response to questions from The Times. "Without the kits, the vehicle meets the federal safety standards and Ford's more rigorous internal guidelines."

As for owners not receiving the letters, Kinley said that could be the result of some vehicles not being registered in the name of a company or of registration information being out of date. Ford has no plans to send follow-up letters, she said.

The upgrade kit has several components, including a pair of shields made of a fiberglass-like material that fit over the axle. They are designed to cover bolts and other protrusions that could puncture the tank should it be pushed into the axle by the force of a violent rear impact.

The second offer of shields has rekindled debate on whether Ford is doing enough.

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