Mysterious problems disrupt delivery of 2020 Ford Explorer, Lincoln Aviator

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press

Ford Motor Co. is shipping thousands of 2020 Ford Explorers and Lincoln Aviators by truck from its Chicago factory to its Flat Rock plant south of Detroit as workers desperately attempt to identify and fix a series of complicated problems in the much-awaited SUVs.

Dealers in different parts of the country confirm they’ve been notified of delays because of “manufacturing issues,” leading one dealership to say the team has had to “pacify” frustrated customers who have spent significant dollars on preorders. No one from corporate is providing details, said a Ford source outside Michigan, who asked that he not be identified because it would anger folks in Dearborn. “We usually learn stuff from the news media.” 

Some of the vehicles already have been recalled, including from dealer lots. 

Ford says the work being done at Flat Rock is not out of the ordinary. "Making updates to preproduction models based on all-new platforms as they roll off the assembly line – is standard industry practice," spokeswoman Jennifer Flake said Friday evening.  

Fix and deliver

The waiting continues for dealers around the United States.

“We’ve been experiencing this for some time because the Explorer was an all-new vehicle," said Jim Seavitt, president and owner of Village Ford in Dearborn. "We got 10 in last week and have 18 in all. We should have far more.” 

Seavitt has discussed the delay with customers.

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“The process has been a little slow this time. I know one thing, we’re happy they’re not giving them to us until they can make sure they can get things right," he said. "They’re not telling us what they’re working on. But not having customers come back into the store to get repairs is very important to us. We want to make sure the quality is right before we get the vehicle.”

Aviator prices start at $51,100. Explorers range from $36,675 to $58,250.

The Free Press has tracked the issue over two months, as the situation continues to alarm workers who say they can't figure out how things can go so wrong.

"We routinely receive several thousand vehicles from Chicago at a time. The teams doing the fixing are working nonstop, 24/7," said a person who is working with employees at the Ford plant in Michigan.

As fast as fixes are made, vehicles are shipped. Sales manager Louie Sparks at The Ford Store Morgan Hill in California said he had 30 SUVs. And sales associate Jeremy Harrison at Lebanon Ford in southwest Ohio said the dealership has about 20 Explorers in its inventory.

"We're getting what we need," Harrison said.

Two Ford Explorers and one Lincoln Aviator are seen on a car hauler on Gibraltar Road near Ford's Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Flat Rock, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019.

No question, Ford sources say they're working rapidly.

A source involved with Explorer repairs at the plant said problems include: 

  • Explorer chassis issues. X-rays are being used to try to diagnose problems.
  • Explorer transmission-related questions that prevent the vehicle from going into park or properly sensing the vehicle is in park. Some transmissions are not going into park and the computer is automatically activating the parking brake. Also, the computer cannot determine whether the vehicle is going into park properly and then not activating the brake, which means the vehicles are rolling away. 
  • Explorer and Aviator air-conditioning systems that blow heat only.
  • Aviator suspension issues. The new system has auto leveling, which drops the vehicle down slightly when it’s unlocked and approached. But they’re arriving with suspensions in failure mode.

Ford sources say they're puzzled by even mundane situations, such as missing emblems and trim pieces and having the wrong wheels.

More:2020 Ford Explorer's new RWD changes everything for the better

Working tirelessly 

On Aug. 7, Ford recalled the two Chicago-built SUVs for missing a part that keeps them from rolling in park. On Aug. 30, Ford issued another recall for vehicles that included the new Explorer and Aviator. That safety alert said, “A seat back with an improperly assembled recliner mechanism may have reduced strength and may not adequately restrain an occupant in a crash, increasing the risk of injury.”

The recall included Explorers built between Nov. 21, 2018, and Aug. 21, 2019, and Aviators built between April 12, 2019, and July 16, 2019, Ford said. All vehicles are built in Chicago.

Ford sources close to the situation confirm crews are working around the clock at Flat Rock now, and have been for two months. 

Ford Explorers parked at Ford's Vreeland Road Quality Center in Woodhaven, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019.

'Incredibly serious'

Employees who say they’re concerned about public safety have provided the Free Press photos of the troubled vehicles, video of dashboard systems displaying repair alerts and a checklist provided to workers trying to resolve the problems.

“This is incredibly serious,” said a Ford source helping manage the problem. “There is no end in sight. Physical changes are being made at FRAP (Flat Rock Assembly Plant) in anticipation of additional parts being required moving forward into winter. Parts are currently being stored in temporary tents behind the plant.”

Tents at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant are used to house repair parts used to fix the 2020 Ford Explorers, which are being shipped to Michigan from the Chicago Assembly Plant. This image was provided to the Detroit Free Press on Sept. 13, 2019.

Ford employees note that Explorers and, to a lesser extent, Aviators, are arriving in Michigan by truck rather than by train. Trucking is more expensive. 

'Room for repair'

Workers are being called to Flat Rock from plants in Kentucky, Dearborn, Wayne, Sterling Heights and elsewhere to do repairs, Ford sources in metro Detroit said.

“Roush is taking on more and more of the repair work," a Ford source said, citing a metro Detroit engineering firm that works extensively with Ford. "Overtime is unlimited. ... Each night, at the end of the day shift, the pre-delivery inspection areas are swept of all Mustangs and the Chicago vehicles are brought in to be fixed. Same goes for Friday through Sunday.”

A Ford source who provided video from the plant in July said, “Looking at our lot, you’d almost think we made those Explorers here as well.”

The Flat Rock plant is building Mustang and Lincoln Continental cars Monday through Thursday, with weekends devoted to processing Explorers and Aviators “for heavy repairs which cannot be done in the peripheral buildings,” Ford sources confirmed.

“We date the vehicles as we receive them, and right now they’re still processing some vehicles with the dates of Aug. 6, which means many of the vehicles have been here for a month now or more,” the Ford source at the plant said on Sept. 6.

“From what I’ve seen on what they call ‘money cars,’ or cars which are done, I would say they’re currently getting maybe 80 to 100 cars (per shift) finished. Still, with somewhere north of 12,000 cars needing repairs, doing the math, you can see this is a huge project and a huge expense for Ford.”

Workers write a dollar sign on the side windows when vehicles are cleared for release.

Explorers have been stored at the intersection of Vreeland and Hall roads near FRAP, and Explorers there are waiting for parts and repairs, Ford sources said.

“The number of units requiring repair is quite high,” the Ford source at the plant said. “We started out potentially getting 3,000 to 4,000 bad units and then it went to 7,000 and 10,000. … The number is high enough that many of the units are being trucked out to Roush over in Allen Park so they can do some of the repairs.”

As a result of all this movement, Ford sources said, the SUVs are racking up mileage.

Most Mustangs and Continentals that come off the line have between 4 miles and 10 miles, having been shuttled between buildings and run briefly to verify engine and transmission function or get driven onto trains, the sources said.

“To see a vehicle with 15 miles is unheard of," said a Ford source involved with production. "But I have personally seen on the odometer a few of the Explorers/Aviators with between 150-200 miles on them. Today I saw one near one of the buildings which had a sad face written on it with 'high miles — 402.'“

The company denied that such mileage on a new vehicle is unusual, saying that quality auditors and sometimes executives drive new vehicles to ensure things are right.

275-mile trek

Asked whether it's normal to truck vehicles 275 miles to complete what Ford calls a "normal industry practice," spokeswoman Flake said, "It can be. It’s all down to where we have available space, plant capacity and an experienced workforce."

Sources handling the issues for Ford, who feared repercussion if identified publicly, said they are concerned the company has lost track of quality control and employees are genuinely worried that the company isn’t taking measures to fix chronic manufacturing problems. 

In addition to managers expressing concern about scheduling and meeting dealer expectations, UAW members say these unexpected costs will cut into their profit-sharing checks. 

Auto companies often have executives and employees drive new vehicles to identify glitches early so they can be fixed.

Ford sources who have driven the vehicles have reported alarming malfunctions, including transmissions "leaking so much that it looks like a crime scene."

At the moment, Explorer buyers may enter their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) into an online tracking system to see when their vehicle was ordered, when it was built and indication that no delivery date is scheduled.

This photo of an online VIN search shows one of thousands of 2020 Ford Explorers ordered and built but not transported or scheduled for arrival at the dealership. The tracker screenshot was taken from the website on Sept. 7, 2019. (VIN redacted for privacy reasons.)

Vehicles with certain VIN numbers appear to be on some sort of quality hold, according to online research.

Can't stop

The finances of this situation are complicated. A wholesale transaction is recorded by Ford when a vehicle leaves the plant, or is "gate released." Revenue is booked when the vehicle is wholesaled and leaves the plant for the dealer. A sale, or “delivery,” is logged when the dealer completes the transaction with the consumer.

So stopping production could reduce revenue booked this quarter. For this reason, it's more common for any automaker to fix vehicles after the assembly process has been completed. 

The lucrative new SUVs, which are comparable in price to the valuable Ford F-Series franchise, is essential to the financial health of the company. Launches are important opportunities to boost revenue. Timing is crucial.

In addition to bringing workers from elsewhere to Flat Rock, managers have been offered expense-paid packages to relocate to Chicago in the short term. 

12-hour shifts, 7 days

Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker indicated there’s no cause for alarm.

When asked how long Explorers and Aviators would be transported to FRAP for pre-delivery inspection for bugs, she said, “We will follow this process as long as it takes to ensure that the vehicles are built with the top quality our customers expect.”

When asked about the Explorers sharing the floor with Mustangs and Continentals, with a staging lot set up in Allen Park on Southfield Road for the SUVs, she responded, “Not sure what’s interesting about a staging lot — that’s simply part of the process. We will use it as long as it’s needed.”

Felker confirmed volunteers had been canvased to work 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week for a 90-day temporary assignment.

“Your reference to the temporary assignment is how temporary assignments are typically framed,” she said. 

Hot vs. cold

Stephen Shaffer of Bethesda, Maryland, contacted the Free Press Saturday after reading of the delivery disruption on to discuss his 2020 Explorer.

"This is my fourth Explorer, and I love the ST performance, the new interior gadgets, and the Atlas Blue color," he said.

"Unfortunately, I am experiencing the issues that you described in your article. A few weeks ago, it was a 90 degree-plus day in Washington, D.C., when I turned on the air conditioner — one side blew cold air and the other side was blowing extreme heat," Shaffer said. "I first thought it was something that I programmed wrong. Now I know it might be an interior issue."

Stephen Shaffer has owned a 2020 Ford Explorer ST for five weeks and he loves it. But the air-conditioning blew hot air on the passenger side and cold air on the driver's side, illustrating an issue with the early production vehicles. He is pictured here Sept. 14, 2019 in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

Shaffer, one of millions of loyal customers who have made the Explorer America's bestselling SUV, said, "I still love my ST."

He paid $60,000 for the vehicle about five weeks ago. Shaffer said he reached out to Ford on Saturday to ask what steps he should take to remedy the situation, noting that he referenced the news story. He is waiting to hear back. "I have full faith and confidence that Ford will back up their product."

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.