A Ford Kuga in flames on the roadside. File picture: Warren Krog / AP.
Johannesburg – Ford Southern Africa wouldn’t say how much its much-publicised Kuga recall campaign is costing, but the reputational damage done to the brand is even harder to quantify.

By taking so long to react to a life-threatening factory fault in its cars and only after extensive prompting by the media, looming legal action by affected owners and pressure from the National Consumer Commission, did the company this week finally institute what it ironically calls a “voluntary” recall campaign on 4556 Kuga 1.6 Ecoboost models built between 2012 and 2014. Local insurance companies had reportedly informed Ford about the fires more than a year ago, and already back in 2013 the Ford Escape, the sister model to the Kuga, was affected by fires in the US.

Ford’s dilly-dallying is not the way to instil confidence in a brand. When two or three Kugas went up in flames it should have elicited worry within the company. When it was followed by a few more, the alarm bells should have started ringing and the words “recall campaign” should have resounded down Ford’s corridors a lot earlier.

Only now, after 39 burnt-out cars (possibly more) and extensive public outrage, did the company launch an investigation and ascertain that the fires were due to overheating which led to cracking in the cylinder head and leaking oil igniting on the hot engine.

The safety recall initially involves replacing affected cooling system components, updating software, and conducting an oil leak check on the cylinder head. Stage two will make the cooling system even more robust and may involve further changes to parts and warning systems.

But all this should have been done many months ago.

Based on the public response, it’s clear this isn’t a reputation problem limited to one particular Ford Kuga 1.6-litre model. It’s the whole brand in the firing line and it will be interesting to see how the blue oval’s sales figures are affected over the coming months.

The company also deflected responsibility for the December 2015 death of Kuga driver Reshall Jimmy after his car burst into flames, saying this was unrelated to the recall campaign as the fire hadn’t started in the engine bay. As if it matters where the exact fault was. The car malfunctioned, someone died and Ford displayed insensitivity to Jimmy’s family by not acknowledging blame.

Most of the families whose Ford Kuga SUVs burst into flames will be filing a class-action lawsuit against Ford.

Engine fires are serious and indicate shortcuts in the development and production of a car. However people understand that mechanical things can go wrong and the more important part is how the manufacturer reacts to the crisis. Ford gets a very low score for this one.

One would have more respect for the carmaker if it had owned up right from the start and said: “We messed up, we’re sorry and we’ll fix it.”

Instead the company comes across as an unfeeling corporate giant forced into making a grudging recall and half-hearted apology.

Perhaps the company can take heed of the words of its founder Henry Ford who said: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.