Ford Hid SUV Rollover Evidence For Decades

Like other car companies, Ford has consistently fought mandatory increases in fuel economy for SUVs and other vehicles by invoking fears that higher mileage requirements would result in smaller, more dangerous vehicles. Safety has been used to beat back fuel efficiency regulations. But Ford's own internal documents and a series of recent court cases reveal a company that is shockingly indifferent to safety risks in the very class of gas-guzzling vehicles it most wants to shield from increases in fuel economy standards—SUVs.

An Environmental Working Group (EWG) review (now available at reveals that Ford engineers knew in 1982 that the original sport utility vehicle, the Bronco II, was prone to roll over during routine safety tests. With modest stability changes that did not significantly reduce rollover potential, the Bronco II was renamed the Explorer in 1990.

The EWG investigation, “SUVs: Suddenly Upside Down Vehicles,” shows that the Bronco II was so unstable that Ford’s engineers cancelled “J-turn” test drives out of fear for the safety of Ford’s professional test drivers. Ford executives ignored their company engineers’ urgings that they widen the vehicle’s wheel track to make it safer and rushed the Bronco II into production anyway. The company legal office gathered documents on stability tests before the first Bronco II rolled off the assembly line, only to mysteriously lose half of them. Ford then paid a former company engineer $5 million to lie about what the company knew of about rollover dangers in 30 lawsuits brought against Ford over eight years.

Decades later, a document trail is haunting Ford in court. In 2001, a federal judge in Goff v. Ford concluded that Ford had engaged in a conspiracy to commit fraud. In a 1999 decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals referred to Ford’s behavior in launching the “dangerous and defective” Bronco II as “highly reprehensible” and “the crassest form of corporate indifference to safety . . . of the consumer.”

An EWG review of internal Ford Motor Company documents obtained in a series of SUV rollover cases against Ford shows that:

  • Ford engineers abandoned critical pre-production road tests with the Bronco II, which, with modest changes, went on to become the Explorer, because routine safety tests were too dangerous for test drivers. Less than six months later, Ford went into production with no substantial modifications of the vehicle.
  • Ford ignored its engineers’ recommendations to widen the track of the vehicle and lower the center of gravity. In the spring of 1982, Ford engineers recommended that only one change, a three- to four-inch widening of the vehicle track, would produce a “major improvement” in “roll characteristics.” Ford ignored the safety and design recommendations of its own engineers and went into production after widening the vehicle by just 4/10ths of an inch. Widening the vehicle and lowering the center of gravity would have cost just $83.00 per vehicle.
  • In anticipation of rollover litigation, for the first time in company history, Ford’s Office of General Counsel gathered more than 100 critical engineering documents before the production of the Bronco II and ordered engineers to “sanitize” them. Roughly half of these key documents disappeared.
  • The remaining development documents were not disclosed to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) during the 1988-1990 Bronco II investigation. Ford said it “didn't notice” that NHTSA asked for Bronco II development documents.
  • When litigation began to heat up, Ford paid a former company engineer, David Bickerstaff, $5,000,000 over eight years to lie in a series of 30 rollover cases. In June 1990, Bickerstaff sent Ford a letter in which he offered to be paid $4,000 a day to “assist you [Ford] in preparing me [Bickerstaff] to testify in Ford’s favor.” Before he was paid by Ford, Bickerstaff testified that as a Ford engineer, he was concerned about the Bronco II’s propensity to roll over. After being paid by Ford, Bickerstaff testified that while working for Ford, he was not concerned about the vehicle’s low stability index. Bickerstaff also helped Ford rig a videotape designed to convince juries that the Bronco II was not likely to roll over, by loading a Bronco II with 900 lbs of lead shot on the floorboards and seats in a manner that artificially lowered the center of gravity.

“Ford spent the last 20 years saying it couldn’t make higher mileage SUVs because doing so would endanger customers. These documents reveal a shocking degree of indifference to the safety of people who bought the Bronco II,” said Environmental Working Group General Counsel Heather White. “It’s time for Ford to stopping deceiving its customers and the American public, and instead focus on building SUVs that are fuel efficient and safe.”

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