Ford TFI Ignition Recall

We’ve been Firestoned again …

Material posted on this topic is based on personal experience and opinion, not on independently authenticated technical data or legal opinion. It is posted as a matter of public interest. cannot say whether information posted here is applicable to the situations of others. may post reader questions and experience in the appropriate forums, but we are not a resource for research or diagnostics.

(10-13-2000) 19:50 PDT CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit Friday against Ford Motor Co. two days after a California state judge, in the first such directive by any court, told the carmaker to recall 1.7 million Ford vehicles to check ignition systems.

Kenneth B. Moll & Associates filed the suit in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of any Ford owner who claims damages or injuries as a result of the alleged design flaw that is said to cause Fords to stall while moving, especially when hot.

Readers Write:

see document: Ford F150 Fires
see document: Ford Kills

1984 Ford Bronco (photo 1996)Gosh. As I recall, the judge’s order affected Fords manufactured between 1985 and 1995.

Two personal experiences with this defect tell me the problem is older than that, and perhaps even more dangerous than news coverage has led us to believe.

Ford has stated that there is nothing wrong with these vehicles. This reasoning caused me to have to pay twice to replace defective TFI (thick film ignition) modules, after two dangerous and potentially life-threatening problems.

This is not an article about automotive diagnostics. It’s an article about the engineering of a bad part, and ownership of one vehicle in which that part was installed. If you are experiencing problems of any kind with your vehicle, get it checked out immediately at a reputable auto shop. Please see our “Note 2002” postscript for more information on what to do, and what not to do; we can’t diagnose vehicles here.

In 1985 I became the proud owner of a used 1984 full-size Ford Bronco. Though it earned the nickname “Miss Piggy” for its frequent, expensive repairs and hideous gas mileage, it served me fairly well in many ways for 14 years.

In about 1986, I was driving north from Castro Valley to an intended destination somewhere in downtown Oakland. On the MacArthur freeway, highway 580 (San Francisco Bay Area), I noticed somewhere in the vicinity of Seminary Avenue that I seemed to need more gas pedal than normal to maintain the same speed, about 70 at that time. By Fruitvale Avenue, I has the accelerator almost to the floor just to go 65, and was checking the “emergency checklist”: the brakes, parking brake, water temp, oil pressure, transmission actually in Drive, and other vital signs. They all seemed normal.

The Bronco was rapidly slowing down, the engine sounded like it was not firing properly, and trucks were starting to pass me at high relative speed. I was a vehicle in obvious distress. There was a strong smell of gasoline, like a flooded engine. With flashers on, I managed to maneuver onto the Grand Avenue offramp, and fortunately found a Chevron station within a block.

I pulled in, turned off the ignition, and looked under the hood. The exhaust manifolds and exhaust pipe were red hot, almost red-orange. I managed to cool it down with a mist of water. But I got a Chevron mechanic to look at my engine right away.

We thought it might be the timing chain, but it was the “TFI ignition module”. He explained what it was, part of the electronic ignition. These have a tendency to go out on some models, this could not be repaired but had to be replaced, and he warned me that the modules were very expensive. “Charge it”, I said.

How bizarre. This would not happen to anybody again in a million years. It seemed it was just my bad luck. The repairs were done in a few hours, they WERE very expensive, and I never gave it much thought again.

In 1998, Miss Piggy developed a distressing tendency to stall out at low RPM. This would be at stoplights, or driving slowly down a residential street. It was embarrassing and annoying, but at first it happened so infrequently I began to ask, when was the last time I had a real tune-up?

I replaced the carburetor fuel filter, air cleaner, distributor rotor and cap, and plugs. It seemed to benefit, and the stalls went away. I knew there was a second, inline fuel filter tucked somewhere under the chassis, but I couldn’t find it. Then the stalls began again.

I took it to a shop we liked in Belmont, and asked for a “real tune-up”. I told them to replace the inline fuel filter because I was sure it had to be clogged. I’d never replaced it, and the engine, I dutifully reported, stalled sometimes. The stalls seemed characteristic of fuel starvation, and my theory was that it would always start again when the electric fuel pump had time to re-fill the carburetor bowls.

When we picked up the Bronco that evening, they’d done the $200 tune-up I asked for – I sprang for a new set of ignition wires also – but they didn’t replace the fuel filter. There was nothing wrong with it, they said.

Baffled, I paid the bill and we drove home. I followed Bob. Because commute-hour traffic on highway 101 is so terrible, we took the surface streets home. The Bronco stalled on busy El Camino Real, a few blocks from the auto shop. This time, I just couldn’t get it started. Angry drivers were peeling rubber to get around me. I remember busses had a hard time getting around me; I was probably also blocking a bus island or something. I was causing a major traffic blockage.

Bob managed to run out to where the Bronco was stalled, to see if he could do anything to help. I tried to stay calm. I told him that if I only waited long enough, it had always re-started in the past. The nearly new heavy-duty battery was running low from repeated starting attempts. Miraculously, just before I ran the battery out completely, the engine started again.

I drove it back to the shop as they were closing. It had started to rain. They were apologetic and wanted to test-drive it. I warned them. It stalled on the mechanic, and four of us had to help push it off the street, in the rain, while rush hour traffic whizzed past us.

The next day, the shop manager called to let me know it was the TFI ignition module. Bingo! I hadn’t thought of that in all those years, and there it was, again.

When I read Ford’s statement that there is nothing wrong with the 1.7 million recalled vehicles, I thought of the red-hot manifold and the strong smell of gasoline in the driver’s compartment. I thought of Bob standing out on the street trying to find out how to help me, as angry drivers roared past him.

We’ve been Firestoned again, if you want my opinion.

Regular readers know I’m somewhat mechanically inclined. In an earlier era of my life, I spent over a year as Automotive Service Manager for a large chain shop. I’m inclined to understand parts that fail, the statistical failure numbers game, and vehicular safety issues.

I can forgive Ford for downplaying the defective part issue, even though my personal experience and ethics come out strongly against their stance.

I cannot forgive their stonewalling this issue with the pronouncement that there is nothing wrong with these vehicles. Parts wear out with a statistically predictable frequency, and drivers need to be prepared to handle emergencies, including stalls and blowouts.

A part which fails prematurely due to poor design or placement (TFI modules are placed too close to the exhaust manifold in this design) is “inherently defective” even if a statistically credible sampling of them never fail at all.

If a Ford is twice as likely to stall out as a GM design, or 10 times as likely, this is a design defect. More importantly, it is also a safety issue with a potential for a catastrophic failure, such as proved to be the case with the rocket fuel tank O-ring seal on the ill-fated Challenger space vehicle.

Such a small part … yet there’s no “proof” to justify a recall?

Clearly, disclosure of such defects is obligatory. As also appears to be the case with the Firestone recall, in which Ford is heavily implicated as a perpetrator, it seems that Ford has known for years something was dangerously wrong with this design.

To me, any claim that Ford did NOT know (or did not believe) it had a serious liability problem, is totally lacking in credibility. As architect of the problem itself, and sole manufacturer of the genuine replacement part, Ford was in a unique position to collect and analyze data on the seriousness and scope of the problem far before its dealers and the automotive service industry would learn of the size of the issue.

To me, failure to acknowledge and disclose this defect, and failure to design a permanent factory correction to the problem, even over a period of over ten years, are each inexplicable, criminally negligent actions.

I agree with Ford’s worst critics that this looks like a criminal cover-up.

My experience indicates this issue was already well known in 1986. If this matter had been addressed right away, perhaps there would be room to argue about who should pay for the repairs, whether Ford has any remaining liability once the warranty expires, and whether indeed anyone had been killed or injured as a direct result of this defect.

As the vehicles became older, warrantees expired, and second and third generations of used-car owners drove around without any understanding of a potentially serious design defect. At this point, Ford has assumed the problem, if it still existed, was somebody else’s problem now.

Surely, most consumers would not be in a position to connect their own personal  unfortunate experiences with a pervasive pattern of failing parts, unless someone told them. That is why Ford remained silent: millions of drivers would bear the cost of the repairs without realizing Ford  was responsible.

A stalled vehicle, particularly on a highway or busy main thoroughfare, is a high risk for collision. From what we can observe on our San Mateo Bridge here, the chances of a stalled vehicle being hit are certainly better than 1 in 10 (there is no road shoulder to pull off onto). The chances may be as high as 1 in 2 on that bridge, depending on the time of day. We saw one such crash last week, when a vehicle made a “blind lane change” and accelerated into a stalled pickup truck.

The statistics don’t seem to be in on the deaths caused directly by this defect. When there is a fatal accident, the motoring public does not have a National Transportation Safety Board to investigate whether the TFI ignition module was the direct cause of the fatal accident of an individual vehicle. Mechanics do not pour over the wreckage to see if the victim was killed by undisclosed manufacturer negligence.

A worn jack-screw on an MD-80 is a terrible thing, killing hundreds of innocents at once if it fails and the aircraft falls out of the sky. If millions of Ford owners, dispersed over the nation, suffer similar casualty rates not in a “single incident” but in hundreds, the liability of Ford in the matter has escaped public attention for over a decade. Ford has hidden behind the device of “liability dispersion”, and it has banked untold money savings that are not rightfully Ford’s.

After fifteen years of silence, these questions of “who should pay” become irrelevant. If the plaintiffs’ case against Ford is proved out in court, the full brunt of compensatory damages should fall upon Ford and Ford alone, plus liability for injury or death. If it is difficult today to determine the true cost of fatalities arising out of this defect, this is also Ford’s fault for the cover-up.

Most of us have learned over the years to be leery of politicized generalizations about corporate greed and callous disregard for the welfare of workers or the general public. The TFI module and Firestone issues have to be a worst-nightmare scenario for defenders of free enterprise.

There will be calls for Brady Bills for the automotive industry. There is already legislation (which I guardedly support) that provides for criminal liability against individual corporate executives who conspire to withhold safety data on proven dangers to great numbers of people.

You don’t have to build another “fluff” regulatory bureaucracy to improve dismal corporate safety track records. Small-time slum landlords and con artists are dealt with severely when they are finally exposed and caught. Big-time con artists, however respectable in the community, should be dealt with on a scale commensurate with the crime. This should add up to big bucks and nasty sentences, into the same penitentiaries in which they throw the littler scumbags.

And, of course we will always hear the familiar objection that this will dry up free enterprise, that no one will be willing to take a risk to make cheaper cars and medicines.

Poppycock. Unless the government intervenes to prevent it, this should make room in the marketplace for more ethical operators. What government regulators have not been able to accomplish in 50 years (and will not be able to accomplish in another 50), massive class-action civil suits may begin to accomplish in another five to ten years.

If not sooner.

I’ve come a long way in the past two decades or so. I actually look forward to seeing this. The worst thing you can do to respectable, jet-set class racketeers is to treat them like the small-time scumbags they really are, only with monetary penalties to match the true size of the population of victims.

When they cry, “why single me out ?”, and plead the jobs and charitable works they’ve offered as an excuse for business as usual, we can give them the same terse answer the big-oil guys give us, when the price of gas shoots over $2.00 at the pumps: tell them it’s nothing personal, it’s just …

“Market Forces”.

Alex Forbes, Friday, October 13, 2000

Note, 2002: We’ve been getting a lot of reponse to my Ford Ignitions article. In theory, this failure could probably cause certain Ford trucks stall, or to fail to start, at any time. But, since the problem is reportedly caused by overheating of a part, it is much more likely to have been first noticed while the engine was running, than after having been parked and cooled down for any period of time.

I don’t recall reading of issues with Ford passenger cars. There are so many hundreds of possible causes of stalls, and failure to restart, that it is impossible to diagnose with any reasonable degree of certainty without having the vehicle checked out by a mechanic.

You can see from reading this article that these kinds of problems are difficult to diagnose and impossible to “armchair”. I have more training and practical experience in automotive repair than the average motorist, and I’d convinced myself that the cause of my Bronco’s problem was fuel starvation.

Please feel free to write us about your personal response to this article, but we must politely request that you not ask us to diagnose your vehicle by email. We aren’t licensed mechanics, and don’t have access to the vehicle, but even professionals can’t diagnose over the internet.

Your first line of defense is always the check-up at a reputable auto shop.

Stalls, failures to start and bad parts are always dangerous, no matter where the liability belongs. When it comes to your personal safety, and that of your passengers and fellow motorists, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the fuel filter or the TFI module. First, get the vehicle fixed right away, and worry later about whether it should have happened at all.


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