Recall of Ford pickup trucks hits home for area couple


Shown is the speed control deactivation switch on a Ford Expedition, part of a recall enacted by Ford Motor Company.

DAVID MASSEY/Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 12:55 a.m.

Helen G. and James C. Smith of Melrose kept a meticulous garage before Dec. 8, 2004.

They stored no gas or other flammables inside. They even parked their 1989 Lincoln Town Car and their 2000 Ford F-150 pickup on pads to protect the floor.

About 11 p.m. on Dec. 8, a fire that started in the garage spread to their 5-year-old brick house, destroying it and the possessions of a lifetime. The couple escaped injury, but Scarlett, their beloved chow-collie puppy, died in the fire.

Helen Smith, 76, always suspected one of the vehicles started the fire. And she said a fire marshal's report said it appeared to have been triggered near the pickup.

On Thursday, that suspicion became more pronounced as Ford Motor Company announced a recall of nearly 800,000 vehicles - including the 2000 F-150 pickup. The reason: A faulty cruise-control switch that could short out and cause even a parked vehicle suddenly to catch fire.

"What I don't understand is that if they knew about it, why they didn't contact us," Smith said Friday.

As word spread of the recall of about 792,000 vehicles - the 2000 Ford F-150, Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicles, and 2001 F-Series Supercrew trucks with cruise control - area Ford dealers began handling a trickle of customers responding to the recall notice.

"We've had some calls today and about half a dozen have come into the dealership," said Joe Alvarez, owner of Gainesville Ford-Mitsubishi. "We set up a special area and assigned technicians to expedite the recall process as people come in."

The initial fix is to disconnect the cruise-control switch, the device that deactivates the cruise control when the brake is tapped.

Alvarez said the procedure should take less than 15 minutes. By late March or early April, he said, supplies of a redesigned switch should start arriving at Ford dealers, who then will replace it free of charge.

Area dealers said the recall could affect hundreds of vehicles in North Central Florida, especially pickups.

"The entire North Florida area is mostly truck country," said Don Barrett, general manager of White Ford in Chiefland. "In this region, it's probably about three to one trucks to cars (sold)."

He said he wasn't aware of the recall until he saw it announced Thursday on TV. His dealership fielded a few calls about the recall Friday and serviced four or five cars that were brought in.

"As we disconnect the switches, we're also putting people on a first-come, first-served list for replacement when the parts come in," he said.

Barrett said some owners of the affected vehicles who have had no problems might elect not to have the switch disconnected. Those who do, he said, will be asked to sign a waiver.

But Ford has advised owners of the recalled vehicles to park them away from structures until they are checked or repaired.

And the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration suggests that doing nothing could be dangerous.

"There appears to be the potential for an almost spontaneous fire when the vehicles are parked," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based agency. "There also have been a number of structure fires related to it."

He said the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has documented 39 vehicle fires among the affected vehicles, 36 of them reported in 2004. None resulted in injuries or death, he said.

But three of the documented cases were confirmed to have caused a building fire, Tyson said. Ten others that resulted in fires to structures were unconfirmed.

Ford issued 21 recalls affecting just more than 5 million vehicles in 2004. In July, the company announced three separate recalls totaling about 171,000 vehicles, including the 2003 Excursion SUV and some 2003 F-Series pickups for potential problems with battery cables.

In November, General Motors called back 1.5 million vehicles - from Chevrolets to Cadillacs - in four separate recalls. Problems ranged from sticking accelerators to defective taillights.

In 2004, GM had the nation's highest number of recalls - 41 totaling 10.7 million vehicles.

Tyson said the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration wants to hear from any owners of the latest recalled Ford vehicles - including the Smiths of Melrose - who have experienced a fire or other problem related to the cruise-control switch.

"This is how the investigation started in the first place, by people contacting us and telling us about the problem," Tyson said.

The toll-free Auto Safety Hotline to report a problem is (888) 327-4236.

It's a number Helen Smith plans to call. She said her insurance agent called Friday and said that in light of the recall notice, they were going to re-examine the F-150 pickup to see if it could have been the source of the fire.

"(Our insurance agent) said they probably will pursue a product-liability claim," Smith said. "When they tried to figure how the fire started, everyone kept saying the truck, the truck. It was the only thing they could come up with."

Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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