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.
Providing the shields for limos was "very important, but it is unfortunately one of these little half steps that Ford likes to make," said David Perry, a Texas attorney who has sued Ford on behalf of several burn victims.
"They will shield a few more vehicles when somebody gets killed, as opposed to going ahead and biting the bullet and getting shields on all these vehicles -- which is what they need," Perry said.
Ford contends that it's simplistic to say rear-mounted tanks are inherently bad, arguing that there is no one safe location since vehicles can be hit from any angle.
The company has no plans to relocate the Panther fuel tanks in the future, said Kinley, who added that the tanks' current position is dictated by other features that owners like.
There's little hard evidence to prove who's right in this debate. Based on court and medical records and a federal fatal accident database, the Center for Auto Safety says that at least 15 police officers and 36 civilians burned to death from 1993 to 2004 in Panther cars -- but the group has not developed comparable figures for other models.
In October 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed a defect investigation without taking action. The agency concluded that the risk of fire in fatal rear crashes for the Ford police cruisers was comparable to that for a Chevrolet Caprice cruiser that went out of production in the 1990s.
Plaintiffs lawyers brandish data showing that 1985-97 Town Cars have a higher risk of fires in fatal rear collisions than many models with front-of-axle tanks -- including the Cadillac Deville, Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla and Pontiac Grand Am. Ford says the incidents have been so rare that the comparisons are statistically insignificant.
Because of the special horror of people surviving a crash and then burning to death, the issue has posed a big public relations challenge for Ford. A 2002 communications strategy memo produced in lawsuits described Ford's goal of keeping "the issue contained by media to police vehicles as much as possible."
In October 2002, when Ford made the offer of shields for police cruisers, a top official stated in an e-mail: "We purposely held the press event on a Friday to minimize national coverage and we accomplished that."
Although the company once faced dozens of class-action lawsuits by police agencies, most of them have been dismissed.
Ford has reached settlements with several families of police officers and others who allegedly burned to death. In April, an Illinois jury ordered Ford to pay damages of $43.7 million for the fiery wreck of a Lincoln Town Car that killed a man and severely burned his wife.
In June, Ford was found not liable for the death of a Missouri state trooper whose cruiser burst into flames after being rammed by a pickup truck.
Scheduled for trial in January, the North Carolina limo case stems from the deaths of three sisters whose rented stretch limo was engulfed in flames after being struck from behind. Megan Elizabeth Howell, 16; Tara Howell Parker, 29; and Mysti Howell-Poplin, 24, were returning from a Fleetwood Mac concert in September 2003 when the limo got stuck in a traffic jam and was hit by a drunk driver in a pickup truck.
Ford has acknowledged that the sisters died in the fire -- not from the impact -- and that the shields could have prevented the limo's fuel tank from puncturing.
But the company says it is not liable since the tank probably would have burst from the violence of the wreck if it hadn't been punctured.
"Until drunk drivers stop striking parked vehicles at 60 miles per hour, there will be more tragic accidents," Kinley said. "No vehicle design can eliminate risk of injury in such severe accidents."