William Clay Ford, who learned to drive on the lap of his grandfather, Henry, worked on the assembly line during summer breaks at Yale, led the design and development of the stylish Continental Mark II in the ’50s, bought the NFL’s Detroit Lions in the ’60s, and went on to become chairman of the Ford Motor Co. executive committee in the ’70s and vice chairman in the ’80s, died yesterday at age 88.
“His most lasting effect on the carmaker, however, may have been his stubborn insistence that the family not give up control of the company when it went public in 1956,” writes Joann Muller in Forbes. “By demanding that the family retain 40% of the voting rights through a special class of stock, Bill Ford ensured the family’s influence over his grandfather’s company would be sustained through multiple generations.”
The provision enabled him to engineer the return of a Ford — his son, William Clay Ford Jr. — to the CEO’s office following the ouster of Jacques Nasser in 2001.
“Born into a fortune and spent much of his life staying away from fame,” writes the AP’s Larry Lage. “Despite ample opportunity to boost his ego in either role, Ford chose to carry himself in a quiet way publicly.”
His first love was design.
“He was asked in the early 1950s by Ernest Breech, the company chairman, to study whether to revive the Lincoln Continental,” author David Lewis, a retired University of Michigan history professor, tells the Detroit Free Press. “He gathered a little staff and talked the company into going ahead. There were about 10 designs for styling and it’s well known that Bill’s design won out. So the company used his design for several years in the early 1950s for cars that sold for a princely $10,000.”
Forbes’ Muller writes that he “took care to make sure the car followed the designs of the original Continental — matching the ratio of window glass to sheet metal, recreating the intimate feel of the interior controls, and mounting the spare tire within an impression in the sheet metal of the trunk, recalling the original Continental’s outside-mounted spare tire.”
William may have been cut from the same cloth as his brother Henry II (“Hank the Deuce”) — an effective manager also known for his “jet-setting lifestyle,” as the New York Times’ Douglas Martin puts it — but he wore the raiment of wealth quite differently. “When the New York Times Magazine asked William in 1969 about his brother’s cosmopolitan crowd, he allowed that they were not his ‘cup of tea,’” Martin writes.
A year earlier, he “astounded friends, business executives and politicians by publicly supporting Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination” after supporting conservative Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 race, Martin relates. “Ford said he was moved by Mr. McCarthy’s opposition to the Vietnam War.”
Ford married Martha Firestone Ford, granddaughter of tire baron Harvey Firestone, while they were still in college — “unit[ing] two of America’s industrial dynasties,” as Martin puts it. She survives.
“Ironically, when the family had to step in to resurrect Ford more than a decade ago, the debacle causing the company's troubles was a rash of rollover accidents involving Ford Explorer SUVs — fitted with Firestone tires,” Chris Woodyard points out in USA Today.
The couple was married 66 years and had three other children besides William, Jr. — Martha Ford Morse, Sheila Ford Hamp and Elizabeth Ford Kontulis.
“In a town full of big dogs, William Clay Ford Sr. was just about as big as they could get,” Daniel Hoes writes in the Detroit News. Beyond his business achievements — although “long-suffering” Lions fans might quibble with the word “achievement” — “his philanthropy dispensed prodigious sums, especially for institutions that bore a founding connection to his grandfather."
“Describing Ford's legacy outside of the company his grandfather founded, Ford noted his work with the Eisenhower Medical Center, the United Way, and the Boys' and Girls' Clubs of America. The company also described his support for sports medicine research and the Henry Ford Museum,” points out NPR’s Bill Chappell.
Perhaps Ford’s understated demeanor is best expressed by former receiver Johnnie Morton in an Autoweek roundup of reminiscences of leaders in the business and sports worlds:
“In so many NFL locker rooms, if the owner is around, players put their heads down and hope not to get noticed. In Detroit, I noticed right away that players would go up to him to say hello. One time, I hollered, ‘Big Willie is in the house,’ when he walked in the locker room. Some guys were looking at me like I was about to get cut, but then Mr. Ford later came over and cracked up about it.”
Funeral services will be private.