After the carnage that nearly wiped out the domestic auto industry in 2009, it's nice to see Ford doing so well. It just reported a $2 billion profit this quarter, and its widely recognized improvements in design and reliability contributed to a marked improvement in Americans' perception of the quality of American cars in general.
Still, despite all that, my wife will never ever buy a Ford, no matter how attractive the design or groundbreaking the technology. She will continue to refer to it as a "Found on Road Dead." Why? Because she had a bad experience with a Ford car years ago, and it's stuck with her ever since.
The car was a 1990 Ford Taurus given to her by her grandfather, who, being a certified car nut, took meticulous care of it. When she got the car in 2001, it had just under 60,000 miles on it and was to all appearances in excellent shape. After about four months, she noticed a loud whining and a burning smell when taking turns. She took it to the mechanic and got an expensive diagnosis: It needed a new power-steering pump. A few months later, a sickly sweet smell heralded the disintegration of several coolant hoses. We were in college at the time, and the repair bills were killing her, but we reasoned that we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth and kept it.
By the time we graduated in 2003, the car was up to 75,000 miles. By that time, the power-steering pump had given out again, the power windows were dead and strange and ominous sounds were coming with every shift of the transmission. That transmission died that summer, stranding us on the Florida Turnpike on a blazingly hot day. A new transmission would have cost us north of $600, so we sold the car for scrap. Meanwhile, my '97 Honda, the car I took to college, has 200,000 miles on it and is still going strong to this day.
I tell this story not to pick on Ford, which is doing an admirable job of turning itself around, but to demonstrate how hard it is to change someone's mind about a brand of vehicle if they've had a bad experience. Being that 94 percent of car purchasers have to take out a car loan to even get in the thing, and that it's probably the second-biggest purchase most people will ever make, it's not like you can throw it away and buy another if it's not working out. Expensive car repairs, not to mention being stranded by the side of the road, leave negative memories that can persist for decades. Some brands become so damaged by memories of poor designs and reliability that they can never recover, a fate that nearly claimed GM just a few months ago.
I think it's just a little ironic that my wife was turned against Ford by a Taurus, the sedan that was touted as the centerpiece of another comeback for American automakers in the post-oil-shortage '80s. Let's hope Ford's present models do better at burnishing the company's image over the long term and avoid the creation of more Ford haters in the future.
What's the worst experience you ever had with a car?