Ford, plagued by early quality problems with redesigned vehicles over the last two years, has been quietly fixing a defect on hundreds of new Expedition sport utility vehicles that could have led to an embarrassing recall, a source close to the company told Reuters yesterday.

The source told Reuters that the problem involved faulty welding in the rear suspension area of between 1,000 and 2,000 early production models of the full-size SUV, which Ford began building in April at its Michigan Truck assembly plant outside Detroit.

Ford spokeswoman Della DiPietro would not discuss with Reuters details of the problem with the Expedition.

“This was something that happened very early on in the launch, it was resolved very early on in the launch, and it’s an issue that we’re putting behind us,” DiPietro told Reuters.

Dana spokesman Gary Corrigan would not comment either. “We just consider this to be a quality issue that Ford is working through in their normal manufacturing process,” he told Reuters.

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Ford held back the first month’s production of 2003 Expedition and the similar Lincoln Navigator for extra quality checks and caught the problem before any vehicles were shipped to dealers, Reuters said.

But the Ford source told Reuters that repair work, involving four or five rewelds, was still taking place yesterday with about 300 new Expeditions still in line for welding work.

The source also told Reuters that Dana, which makes the Expedition frame, is fixing the trucks together with an independent contractor.

Reuters said the work was being carried out in a hangar of the Willow Run airport near Ann Arbor, Michigan, which sits alongside a tightly secured parking field where Ford has held many of its new trucks, clad in white plastic sheeting, since April.

The problem was first reported by BlueOvalNews, a Web site that closely follows Ford, Reuters said.

The news agency said Ford had hoped for a flawless launch of its new SUVs after highly publicised recalls of the redesigned 2002 Explorer and the new Escape SUV that it rolled out in 2000.

The source told Reuters that Ford was at least spared the negative publicity that would have come with a recall.

“They caught them early, they were the first couple of thousand trucks,” the source told Reuters.