Bill Schaeffer was driving on the Long Island Expressway when the sunroof on his 1992 Ford Explorer suddenly blew off the sport utility vehicle.
“I looked in the rearview mirror and I saw the sunroof flying like a little helicopter and it was heading right for the car behind me,” Schaeffer said in an interview.
“I was nervous because it was heading level with the driver, but by the time it had gotten to the car it had dropped downward into his bumper and then went below the car,” said the stockbroker from South Huntington, N.Y.
Schaeffer is among 170 motorists who have complained that the sunroofs on their Ford Explorers either blew off while they were driving or suddenly shattered.
The government’s highway safety agency recently upgraded its investigation into the sunroofs on Ford Explorers for model years 1991-94 to determine if there is a defect.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also looking into the sunroofs on 1991-94 Mazda Navajos. The Explorer and Navajo are equipped with the same optional, factory-installed sunroof glass panel made by Ford and sunroof assemblies manufactured by Webasto Sunroof, Inc. of Rochester Hills, Mich.
Ford spokeswoman Karen Shaughnessy in Dearborn, Mich., said the company was “cooperating fully with NHTSA.” Webasto officials did not respond to phone messages.
There have been 104 reports of Explorer sunroofs blowing off vehicles and 66 reports of sunroofs shattering without any evidence of them being hit by an object, according to government records. There is one complaint of a Mazda Navajo sunroof shattering.
Nineteen minor injuries were reported, mostly minor cuts passengers said were from the shattered glass. The government has two reports of sunroofs striking other autos.
There are about 292,000 of the 1991-1994 Ford Explorers with the sunroofs on the road and about 34,000 Navajos.
Lou Camp, Ford’s director of automotive safety, said in February the matter is “unrelated to a design or manufacturing defect” but instead involves “customer usage issues.”
His memo to the government said the sunroof could be scratched or chipped when motorists manually remove and store it and that motorists might reinstall it improperly.
However, Schaeffer and his wife, Linda, say they never manually removed their sunroof.
Schaeffer was taking his 15-year-old daughter and two of her friends to a basketball tournament on June 13, traveling at about 55 mph near Little Neck, when he heard what sounded like an air leak. He tightened the sunroof with a manual dial to seal it “and the next thing I knew there was no sunroof anymore.”
He pulled over to the side of the road to make sure the driver of the other car was not hurt. He could not recover the shattered sunroof from the busy expressway.
The Schaeffers say replacing the sunroof cost $819, but they don’t use the new one because they are afraid of another incident.
“If the sunroof had hit the windshield of another car, it might have killed somebody,” Linda Schaeffer said.
Ford recalled 2,500 sunroofs on 1991 model year Ford Explorers in June 1990 to install redesigned hinges because Ford said the glass panel could fall out if the owner reinstalled it improperly. The recall affected vehicles built before May 1991.
The government has dozens of complaints from motorists who say their sunroofs shattered or fell off while they drove, but the drivers’ names are considered confidential.