In April 2019, Ford Motor Co., in the last paragraph of a 70-page filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, disclosed that it could face significant liability in lawsuits over the transmission used in Focus and Fiesta cars for nearly a decade.
Detroit Free Press Ford reporter Phoebe Wall Howard wrote about the disclosure and began hearing from vehicle owners around the country about years of problems with the cars – and from a former Ford engineer who’d been involved in damage control over the transmissions. That led to a trove of internal documents that showed Ford knew before putting the cars on the road that the transmissions were defective.
“We cannot achieve a driveable calibration,” one engineer emailed to project leaders shortly before the 2012 Focus went to dealers.
After publication of our first “Out of Gear” investigative package on July 11, three members of Congress called for federal safety regulators to investigate. On Aug. 14, Ford extended the warranty on 600,000 of the vehicles’ transmissions. On March 5, 2020, a federal judge approved a class-action settlement that will require Ford to buy back vehicles for up to $22,000 apiece and spend a minimum of $30M in payments to owners and former owners who may not qualify for the buyback program. "You could see where this settlement could end up costing Ford hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially $500 million," said attorney Michael Kirkpatrick.
These low-cost cars were marketed to entry-level buyers on a tight budget, often retirees and students, and 1.5 million remain on the road. Owners around the country almost daily thank us for staying on the story and standing up for them after they’ve faced years of frustration, expense and risk. Many still report problems, and our reporting continues in the investigation.
The continuing investigation
Ford knew Focus, Fiesta models had flawed transmission, sold them anyway
6 key findings from the investigation of Ford Focus, Fiesta transmissions
Among Ford cars with flawed transmission, the 2012 Focus had the most complaints
Ford's initial statement in Focus, Fiesta transmission investigation
Ford's second response to Free Press Out of Gear investigation
'Our constant struggle to keep the Focus operable is truly overwhelming'
US senators call for investigation of Ford Focus, Fiesta transmission decisions
Ford secretly tells dealers: Fix faulty Focus, Fiesta transmissions until July 19
NHTSA says it's reviewing complaints of faulty Ford transmissions
Ford Focus, Fiesta owners deal with transmission repair nightmare
Top Ford manager goes to woman's home to inspect Fiesta, fix her troubled transmission
Ford extends warranty on Focus and Fiesta clutches; will reimburse customers for repairs
600,000 Ford Fiesta, Focus owners await extended warranty notice for $1K clutch repair
Ford: Court of Appeals orders review of Focus, Fiesta class-action deal
US fraud prosecutors demand Ford Focus, Fiesta documents
Ford workers break their silence on faulty transmissions: 'Everybody knew'
He had to drive a defective Ford Focus home in reverse. Now he blames automaker for debt
Ford to pay millions to Focus, Fiesta owners in transmission settlement
Peter Bhatia: How the Free Press pursued two big stories, and why
Ford Fiesta, Focus owners could get thousands of dollars apiece, lawyers predict
Postcards sent to Ford Focus, Fiesta owners could be worth thousands of dollars
Ford Focus, Fiesta owners finally collecting thousands in transmission settlement
Michigan AG Dana Nessel joins Ford Focus, Fiesta owners in transmission case
Ford pays $49K to couple for 2014 Fiesta, settles defective transmission cases
2017-19 Ford Fiesta, Focus owners allege DPS6 transmission defect never fixed, sue
Ford Focus, Fiesta cars sit in shop for months, owners ‘ghosted’ by automaker
Jury: Ford must pay $58K to 2013 Fiesta owner
Share your tips
The Free Press wants to talk to anyone who knows more about Ford’s DPS6 transmission. Call or email reporter Phoebe Wall Howard at 313-222-6512 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ford drivers affected
Ford established a special customer-assistance hotline (833-805-3673) for questions about Focus and Fiesta. Owners also can visit Owner.Ford.com and use your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for information.
About the reporter
Phoebe Wall Howard has spent 15 years covering business, politics and government regulation.
She’s a sixth-generation Detroiter whose family painting business was based in Corktown.
At the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, her work helped reopen a capital murder case. At the Des Moines Register, her reporting was cited by the Iowa Supreme Court when it overhauled foster care policy. At McClatchy Co., she exposed fraud in waste management and government accountability irregularities in Fresno, California.
She returned to Detroit in 2017 to cover the auto industry for the Free Press. She was recognized as the top beat writer in the USA TODAY Network for 2018 and as the top Detroit auto writer by the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2019.
Randy Essex, senior content director at the Free Press, coordinated the project and analyzed more than 10,000 complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the cars in question, eliminating all but the most specific accounts of DPS6 problems. That turned up at least 4,377 reports to federal officials and 50 previously unreported injuries. Essex has led award-winning coverage of presidential politics in Iowa and Ohio; the auto industry and urban rebirth in Detroit; and immigration in Colorado. Randy led business and other coverage at the Free Press from 2006-11, including the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, and returned in 2017.
Mark Phelan, the Free Press auto critic and product specialist, reviewed technical data involving the transmission and interviewed the former engineer to discuss process, protocol and technical points. Phelan is auto critic and columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He began covering the auto industry in 1986, working for legendary automotive journalist David C. Smith at Ward's Communications in Detroit.
Senior content director for investigations Mark Rochester led a line-by-line fact check of the story. Mark Rochester leads the Free Press investigative team and watchdog reporting on the city of Detroit. Rochester has overseen investigations that have resulted in new federal and state legislation, congressional hearings and regulatory reviews.
Ryan Garza photographed drivers to show the personal impact of Ford’s decision to put defective cars on the road. Garza is a two-time Emmy award-winning photojournalist born and raised in Flint. He won Edward R. Murrow award for his work documenting the Flint Water Crisis.
Recognition for Out of Gear reporting
- National Headliner Award, best business coverage
- Michigan Press Association, best business story
- Michigan Associated Press Media Editors, best business writing
- Michigan Associated Press Media Editors, best public service
- Society for Advanced Business Editing and Writing (SABEW), honorable mention, investigative reporting
- Society for Advanced Business Editing and Writing (SABEW), honorable mention, general excellence
- 2020 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, finalist, investigative reporting category
- 2021 Society of Professional Journalists, Detroit chapter, best automotive reporting
- 2021 Society of Professional Journalists, Detroit chapter, second place, consumer reporting
- “The judges commend the Detroit Free Press for taking on the powerful auto industry in their hometown. Their investigative work unveiled not just that Ford Focus and Fiesta cars had faulty transmissions but that the company knew about it.”
- “Reporter Phoebe Wall Howard held Ford Motor Company’s feet to the fire in a series of stories that began with a sentence at the end of an SEC filing, and led to revelations about what the company knew (quite a lot) before it decided to sell Ford Focus and Fiesta cars that slipped gears while in operation.”
Free Press investigation: Out of Gear
Ford knew Focus, Fiesta models had flawed transmission, sold them anyway
Focus, Fiesta lawsuit: Ford hid transmission problems — then blamed customers
Focus, Fiesta owners describe struggles and fears
Complaints about Focus, Fiesta to US include injury reports
Here's how Ford responded to Focus, Fiesta transmission investigation