By Karl Strauss
I was the owner (notice I didn’t say happy owner) of a 1997 Ford Escort Station wagon. I bought it used from a nearby Ford dealer. My Toyota Corolla needed too many front-end repairs (after all with 270,000 miles, something was in need of repair).
My daily commute consisted of climbing a long steady hill. When I did so (and some four years after buying the Escort) I noticed that a yellow lamp indicating that the airbag system was not ready would wink on just once or twice and then stop.
This car was never considered the product of an intelligent designer - it had more problems than I care to mention. My wife took the car to a meeting near Palm Springs California. It was July. The meeting was scheduled for a place high up a very steep hill.
As she drove towards Palm Springs she called me to say that the airbag light was again winking and that the motor was running hot. She pulled into a restaurant parking lot to let it cool down.
While she was enjoying her repast, someone came running into the restaurant yelling that a Ford Escort was on fire! Luckily for her, a film crew was nearby and responded with all manners of fire extinguishers. One grip forced open the hood and with one hand yanked out the battery.
We had the car towed to the local Ford dealer. Our choices were clear: Repair the car at a cost of near $2000, or purchase a different one - they would offer no trade-in value for the Escort.
As times were extremely tight we could not afford a different car. The smoke the stranger saw was indeed a battery cable fire under the hood with massive amounts of steam from within.
Ford placed the Airbag computer immediately adjacent to and underneath the heater core. The genius that designed the system placed no protection around it. The exposed PWB, for safety reasons, wired directly to the raw battery harness with no fuse protection.
That winking and dripping was caused by a small crack in the heater core dripping onto the airbag computer electronics. Climbing the hill in 111+ degree heat made it rupture wide open.
As we had no warranty at the time, the cost of the fix was on us. As there was no fire, our insurance didn’t cover it. I filed a complaint with NHTSA - had someone even so much covered the computer with a margarine tub, this would never have happened. NHTSA told me that they had several complaints.
The dealer’s repair shop told me they “accidentally” threw away the defective heater core and computer.
I filed a complaint with Ford asking for a refund. They told me that it was beyond their scope and told me in so many words to Bugger Off. Continued harassment would be met with legal action.
Four weeks after getting the car back, I sold it for $1000 and bought a Honda. Six weeks after that, NHTSA ordered a recall. The fix was to place a plastic shell over the computer.
I approached one last time - they told me that the cost to repair would be reimbursed if I took the car to the nearest Ford dealer to verify the job had been done. As I no longer had the beast, I replied that I had the repair bill from Palm Springs Ford showing what was done and when. Their reply was that the repair bill is no evidence that the repair was done, or performed correctly? What? And, oh yes, they added, “We consider this matter closed.” Bugger Off.