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Can Ford turn around customers, too?

By Claes Bell ·
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Posted: 2 pm ET

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?

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June 22, 2010 at 7:49 pm

My worst car experience were shared between a 1990 Ford Tempo and a 1996 Ford Taurus.
First the Tempo. What a POS that thing was. Four fuel pumps in the time we owned it. The steering wheel caught fire with my wife and kids in the car; imagine the nerve of me wanting to use the horn. I had more parts replaced in the front end suspension and steering components of that car than you can shake a stick at. The crowning glory was when the a/c calved on me five years into it's life (July 1995) on a road trip with hot, humid sweltering heat and a car full of kids. Thanks Ford!
Second, the Taurus. Similar experiences only in a larger vehicle. This car used enough oil to make an oil baron a millionaire. You filled the tank with gas and always had to keep an eye on the oil. The automatic transmission was terrible. This thing had to be coaxed to shift out of first gear. I gave up washing the car as I was not proud of it plus the water only aggravated the rust stains coming out of the seams of the body.
All this while my neighbours and friends had relative peace with their Camrys and Accords. I traded (gave away) the Taurus on a Toyota Camry and could not believe the difference; night and day. My oldest son has now inherited that Camry, approaching 400,000 km, and is still working like a top. And you want me to do what............? No thanks Ford. I'm happy with my American built Toyota Camry

May 22, 2010 at 7:57 pm

That tendency to estimate probabilities based on available experience as opposed to general statistical knowledge is called the availability heuristic, and honestly there probably isn't much Ford can do except (a) start subsidiary companies that people don't associate with the Ford name / history or do some other shell game stuff with the name, (b) wait it out and let people have new experiences that cement a positive image of the brand, or (c) do crazy, crazy marketing. I think some combination of A and B would work best. There are, in the end, enough drivers who don't have an "available" Ford experience that the brand should be able to come back with enough high-quality, low-cost vehicles, especially if it's clear to potential buyers that Ford is making changes.

Claes Bell
May 14, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Wow, that Toyota was one heck of a lemon. It's not surprising that you had the exact opposite experience with Fords that my wife did. Her father, who has owned several Fords, also has nothing but positive things to say about the brand. It amazes me sometimes how much luck can play a roll in a car owner's experience of a brand. It seems like with a product as complex as a car, tiny variations in assembly line conditions and worker performance can have a huge impact. Maybe the day your Toyota was made, a flu epidemic was sweeping through the Toyota factory and your car was put together by temps.

Mike Hardie
May 14, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I had a 1987 Toyota Corolla with 35,000 miles on it when I got it. At about 50k, I had it towed because the oil light came on (turns out was the sender, nothing wrong wiht the engine), then I was towed as fuel came pouring out on the ground as the system sprung a leak, then towed again as I was stranded with engine failure on the freeway in Los Angeles. The windows were hand crank wind up, and one day I cranked the windows down, but the windows stayed up, as they fell off the tracks. I had the AC compressor fail ($900 to replace), then the blower motor failed ($400.) When I got rid of the car at 135,000 miles I vowed to never get another Toyota and never have.

In contrast, the first car I ever bought was an MGB - certainly not known for reliability, but after 100,000 miles of driving, I was never towed anywhere. I had lots of problems and lots of things to replace, but I was nver let down.

Now I have been driving Fords for years. 1989 Probe, never towed. 2000 Focus, 2002 Focus, 2005 Five Hundred, etceteras -- never towed.

I drove a 2009 Ford Flex 40,000 miles in one year and it went into the shop for a howling noise that turned out to be a wheel hub. That was it. Best car I've ever had. The car is filled with features!

Too bad about your experiences with Ford. I think they are great products and would highly recommend them to anyone.

May 14, 2010 at 10:38 am

I will never buy a Dodge. My Mother had a dodge Intrepid that had fuel line issues, brake problems, and oil problems. It left her stranded on the road more than once. I also had a Dodge Caravan in college that I called Smokey since I had to keep a case of oil in the back because th thing ate oil. On the other hand the first car I purchased after graduating from college was a new 1998 Lexus ES300 that I bought in Dec of 1997. It has been running perfectly for 13 years this coming Dec. All I have to do is the normal maintenance.

When I do make a another car purchase I will look at Lexus/Toyota and other makers including some American brands. I am not tied to toyota but there is one brand I will never buy and that is Dodge. And as the author stated it's because of the crappy experience I and my family had with 2 vehicles in the 90s.

May 13, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Yes, I can remember sitting in an Industrial Engineering class while a professor filled the board with a long formula that purported to show the cost of quality. Ironically, the car manufacturers loved this approach and bought into it big time in the early eighties. What they ignored was the losses due to poor quality are often multi-generational and viral. Say I buy a lemon. I unload it after 12 months of bleeding. I have 4 kids and a wife and they swear after hearing me bitch about it to never buy the brand again. Now, the guy I dump the car on has the same experience. This one car could likely cost Ford 15-20 customers for life. Put that in your formula.

Best case of poor design. 1975 Chevy Monza small V-8. You had to pull the engine to replace the plugs. No joke. Wow. Plug change = $700 for labor