The Ford Windstar is well known for a rear axle that can split apart or suddenly snap like dried kindling. This is especially dangerous on the highway. Here are three things you should know.
1. It’s More Than Just Corrosion
The axle issue essentially boils down to corrosion. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) described why these vehicles, in particular, are having such a problem:
“The rear axle beam in the subject vehicles is an inverted ‘U’ channel design, which appears to provide a collection point for road salt slurry, resulting in corrosion that progressively weakens the part until it fractures”
OK, that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how Ford has responded to the problem.
After years of stonewalling its customers, facing increased pressure from the Center for Auto Safety, and staring the barrel of a NHTSA investigation, Ford finally agreed to issue a limited recall in 2010.
But the original recall wasn’t enough. Far from it.
Let’s look at some busted axles
Windstar Rear Axle Recall Timeline
The first Windstar axle recall was for nearly a half a million 1998-2003 vans. The recall was later expanded, and then re-recalled because previous attempts to patch the problem didn’t hold up. Here’s a quick look at Ford’s recalls for this problem:
- The first recall was back in 2010. Ford acknowledged corrosion could cause the rear axle to fail and mentioned that a busted axle “might make the vehicle harder to control”. No really, they said that with a straight face. Ford inspected and replaced any cracked axles, and then installed supporting brackets for all other affected minivans.
- The second recall happened later in 2010, thanks in large part to the Center for Auto Safety. It expanded the original recall to cover more vans.
- The third (yes, third!) recall happened in September, 2015. Remember those brackets Ford used to reinforce the axles? Turns out many of them weren’t installed correctly. Over time they weakened, put strain back on the corroded axles, and lead to a “small number” of accidents. More information on the latest recall here »
A Regional Scope
NHTSA permits manufacturers to limit corrosion-based recalls to specific regions, usually those that use road salt. The section of the USA that uses a higher concentration of road salt is commonly referred to as the salt belt.
So the initial recall was limited to Windstars:
- Manufactured at Ford’s Oakville Assembly Plant (Ontario, Canada)
- Built between 9/1/1997 and 2/28/2003
- That were sold or originally registered in: Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Ford later expanded the recall to include Utah, 27,000 vehicles in Virginia and, most recently, 58,858 in Canada. But it doesn’t cover everybody, like this owner from Oklahoma:
“My mechanic came to my place of employment and kept my car keys so that I could not drive it, He said i had about one inch of metal holding the rear axle together and then the results could be HORRIBLE! So now I hear that FORD has recalled the vans but only in certain states.”
2. Ford is Offering Owners with Old Axles an “Incentive” to Upgrade
Even though Ford misused brackets during previous repairs, Ford spokeswoman, Kelli Felker, said the company still “believes the bracket is an adequate fix.”
If you find that to be a difficult pill to swallow, you’re not alone. But that pill is about to get a lot bigger, flavored like spoiled salmon and covered in tiny shards of glass.
Ford isn’t going to replace your axle for free. Even if you blow on it and rust falls off, they’ll stand behind their bracket solution as long as those brackets were installed correctly. They will, however, offer you an “incentive” to replace your axle.
Ford is offering owners $300 towards the purchase of a new axle.
That’s right, Ford is offering owners the chance to buy a new axle at a discounted price to replace the original axle which was recalled as part of a safety campaign.
“Going down the road 50 mph and the rear axle cracked on my van with myself and 2 of my 3 children in the van. Didn’t realize until the next day that it was the axle. I lost control of the van but was able to regain it by taping the brake to slow the vehicle down. I drove home at 20 mph with flashers on. — 2003 Windstar owner”
The Cost of a New Axle
How much would it cost to replace the axle before the incentive offer? According to owners on CarComplaints.com, the average cost of replacing their rear axle was about $1000. Ford’s offer
Windstar owners on CarComplaints.com say that the average cost of replacing their rear axle is about $1000. In other words, Ford’s offer gets you about 30% of the way there.
That’s like finding out that $3 bag of chips you bought was full of asbestos, and having the chip maker offer you a $0.90 coupon towards the purchase of a new bag (that hopefully is no longer covered in dangerous mineral fibers).
“The only effective remedy is a new rear axle” – Clarence Ditlow, CAS
3. Design Flaw or Maintenance Issue?
The argument has been made that these vans are older, have seen a lot of winters, and car owners have a responsibility to keep their cars clean and well maintained. Those things are all true.
But this problem isn’t a result of the vehicle’s age. And it certainly isn’t as rare as Ford would have you believe.
“I figured it was probably a rare problem so I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. The next day I started hearing a metallic cracking sound each time I took a sharp right hand turn in the Windstar. I parked the car, crawled under and found a 2 inch crack in my axle!!”
As pointed out earlier, NHTSA discovered that Ford’s use of an inverted ‘U’ channel design was a perfect collection system for road salt. That design decision led to axles breaking as early as 60,000 miles.
In fact, the first owner to write in to CarComplaints.com about their axle breaking was a 2001 Windstar owner from Massachusetts. The complaint was filed on November 6, 2007 at a time when the van only had 65,000 miles on the odometer.
“The [Ford dealer] checked my maintenance record to acknowledge I had been faithful in my upkeep. I, like my mechanic, believe this is a serious issue in which other consumers will soon, if not already, experience an axle break. Had the axle given when I was on the highway with my children in the vehicle, the outcome might have been much more severe.
Unfortunately, she was correct.
This Problem Can Turn Deadly
The investigation and eventual recall on snapping rear axles wasn’t enough to save the life of Sean Bowman of Massachusetts. According to reports the Bowman family received an official recall notice from Ford a week after the father of two and Coast Guard veteran died in a crash in which the rear axle of his Ford Windstar snapped.
“This is not your average, everyday recall. This is your rear axle can break, you can lose control of your vehicle, your wheels can fall off,” — Justine Bowman
Bowman’s family believes the severity of the recall demanded more immediate action.