Photo By David Robert The Ramirez family likes their Ford Navigators, and they like Ford. They’re not so high on Lithia. Laura Ramirez ponders the interior of her gutted vehicle.

“We were asleep and my husband was awakened by a loud noise. To him it sounded like a door had slammed. … So I got up and looked, and all the doors were locked, and I kind of teased him and said, ‘You must have heard it in your head.’ And I was walking by the front door and looked out the two little windows there and saw flames in what I thought was my neighbor’s garage across the street.”

What Laura Ramirez saw outside her Hidden Valley home was her own car engulfed in flames. It was a Ford Navigator, a vehicle that was the target of a massive Ford Motor Company recall to repair a fire-prone feature of millions of vehicles. A second Navigator parked nearby was also badly damaged and may be a total loss.

It could have been much worse for the Ramirez family. Larry Ramirez is disabled and needs time to put on braces. And the car could have been parked in the garage instead of in the driveway.

“Had we had the car in our garage, we wouldn’t have a house,” said Laura Ramirez. “The only reason we woke up is because we heard the tires blow.”

What infuriates her, she says, is that they took their vehicles to Reno Lithia to have the recall problem dealt with during an overhaul, and they were told the cars did not need the repair of the cruise-control switch. She says they took their vehicles to Lithia within a week after receiving the recall notice and that Lithia had one of the vehicles for 4 days, the other for 3 days.

“We took both of our Navigators into the local dealership to have them overhauled and spent quite a bit of money,” she said. “And part of this overhaul was to include this recall/repair. And they did not do it.”

Ramirez, author of the book Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting (“The art of parenting,” May 12, 2005), says Lithia has trivialized the fire and tried to blame Ford.

“My position is, they want to pass this off to the Ford Motor Company, but I feel, hey, Ford did the right thing,” she said. “They issued the recall notice. We received it in the mail. We did the right thing. We took our cars in … but they [Lithia] were negligent because they didn’t do the repair.”

The problem is an engineering one. Ford designed numerous 1994-2002 models to have cruise control deactivation switches that were always active, even when the vehicles were shut down. Its position near a brake fluid reservoir allegedly caused more than a thousand fires. On Sept. 7, 2005, consumer advocate Ralph Nader demanded a recall, and either in response or not, Ford that same day announced a huge recall of pickups and sport utility vehicles—3.8 million in all. Among the recalled models were 1994-2002 F-150 pickups, 1997-2002 Ford Expeditions, 1998-2002 Lincoln Navigators, and 1994-1996 Ford Broncos.

Lithia general manager Chip Miller said it is not true that his crew told Ramirez that the repair was unneeded, but he did not explain what did happen.

“That’s not correct, and I will tell you, though, that all of our insurance and everything hasn’t really come to a conclusion on the whole who’s at fault or anything like that. … You know, Ford has responsibilities in these things if and when we find out that’s what it’s about also. But we’re waiting for all the results to come in on everything and then we’ll help take care of what we’re at fault for or our responsibilities are. Not a bad company. Just waiting for the [investigation] results.”

Asked if the recall repair was made, he answered, “You know, I really don’t want to comment about it until we get all the answers back in at the same time.”

A Reno Fire Department investigation concluded, “The area of origin indicates that this fire started in the engine compartment and spread to the passenger compartment. I/O [investigating officer] concludes this fire started from a mechanical malfunction with the vehicle’s engine. Given the … recall, I/O also believes that there is a strong possibility that leaking brake fluid around a faulty cruise-control switch caused this fire.”

Laura Ramirez said, “My husband went in yesterday and spoke with him [Miller] and my husband felt that he seemed to make light of the situation. My car had just been paid off. It had another good 120,000 miles. … Navigators are built to last unless they catch on fire. I know our insurance company is going to give us low bluebook, so I called him, and I tried to make my position clear to him and apparently he didn’t understand it. I wanted to talk to the district manager for the Ford Motor Company, and he was really reluctant to give me [the name].”

Laura and Larry Ramirez have been driving a rental car since the fire. Lithia agreed to pick up the cost.

Ramirez warns other Navigator owners to tend to the problem, if they haven’t already.

“Your car can catch on fire when you’re driving; it can catch on fire when it’s been turned off,” she said.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...