Ford Motor Company has advised thousands of customers to take their Kuga sport utility vehicles (SUV’s) to dealers without delay for repairs that will prevent their vehicles bursting into flames. Following reports of nearly 50 engine fires Ford Southern Africa said it had identified the problem. It said engine coolant was not circulating properly and cylinder heads were cracking and leaking oil. When the oil hits hot engines surfaces the fire starts.

Jeff Nemeth, head of Ford in sub-Saharan Africa said the recall affected 4556 Kugas sold in SA. The vehicles which are imported were built between December 2012 and February 2014. Only 1.6 litre models are affected. Ford officials say the 1.5 litre and 2-litre versions which are also sold in SA, have different components.

Nemeth said dealers would replace cooling-system components, check cylinder heads and update onboard computer software which is supposed to warn of overheating problems.

He announced the recall in Pretoria, at a hastily arranged press conference called by the National Consumer Commission. The commission had originally given Ford until the end of February to find the cause of the fires. However, following several new incidents in recent days and fierce criticism of Ford and the commission for their perceived lack of urgency, the commission advanced its deadline.

Commissioner Ebrahim Mohamed said the watchdog body became aware of the “life-threatening” issue only in early December and had received no consumer complaints before. However, in the face of growing consumer and public concern, it became clear that immediate action was required and Ford was advised to issue a recall notice. “No brand is bigger than the consumer.” said Nemeth.

He said, so far, no one had been killed or injured by Kuga engine fires. There has been one Kuga death of Reshall Jimmy in 2016, but Ford says that was unrelated to the spate of engine blazes. Ford engineers say that fire started in at the back of the vehicle, but local investigators say it was caused by an electrical fault under the dashboard. Ford maintain “that is clearly evidenced by the level of fire damage to the rear and the relative lack of damage to the front of the Kuga,” Ford SA said. “We have requested access to the police report and other investigative materials to better understand all the facts concerning the case.”

The claim that the fire started in the rear, and the forensic report it is based on, does not sit well with the Jimmy family and renowned forensic investigator Dr David Kaltzow, who has been hired by them. “The forensic investigation Ford did was very amateur, and it has come to the wrong conclusion.”

“Ford knows that two independent witnesses have stated in affidavits that the fire began at the front of the vehicle, and they also know we have a video shot by a passer-by which supports this view,” he said. Klatzow also claims that one of Ford’s forensic experts initially said the fire in Jimmy’s Kuga started in the front, then later changed his view, but Ford denies this.

Ford lawyers have gone to court to try to force police to release evidence dockets in the case, so that the motor company could complete its own investigation.

Nemeth defended Ford against accusations that it had ignored warnings that the Kuga 1.6 litre model was a fire hazard. But local insurance companies have said they had alerted Ford to fires at least a year ago. In addition, the Ford Escape, a sister model to the Kuga built in the US, has its own history of engine fires.

Nemeth insisted Ford had responded promptly to all warnings, including sending affected engines to the UK and the US for investigation.

Ford, he said, considered the safety of its customers its top priority. The Kuga was still a safe vehicle, “provided the integrity of the cooling system is maintained.” However, if, while waiting for their vehicle to be fixed owners observed signs of overheating, “they should pull over as soon as it is safe to do so, switch off the engine and ensure all occupants are safely out of the vehicle.” Under no circumstances should the bonnet be opened, he added.

The affected Kugas are built in Valencia, Spain. South Africa is one several export markets for the vehicles, but it appears to be the only one where this problem has occurred. Ford officials suggested that the SA summer heat, as well as general wear and tear on three-to-four year old engines, may have contributed to flammability.