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Ford Motor Co. faces an upgraded U.S. investigation of about 140,000 of its 2001-2003 Lincoln Town Cars because side air bags may inflate unexpectedly when the sedans hit a pothole or debris.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received 138 complaints about the air bags, including reports of eight accidents that caused 10 injuries. The cars were built before December 2002, the Washington-based agency said on its Web site.

An engineering analysis is the second step in the agency's process. NHTSA raises investigations from a preliminary evaluation in 26 percent of cases. Of those upgraded, more than seven of 10 result in a recall. The agency can also find that there was no defect.

Ford is cooperating with the investigation, spokesman Glenn Ray said. The Town Car is the top-selling vehicle for Ford's Lincoln brand, with 59,312 sold in the United States last year.

The preliminary evaluation began March 14 and involved 68,987 of the 2001 sedans, NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd said.

In December, the Dearborn automaker moved the crash sensors in 2003 models of the Town Car to the base of the middle support pillar from the floor to try to reduce inadvertent triggering of the air bags, the agency said.
 
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