William Clay Ford Sr. was bridge from automaker’s founding to its future

March 9, 2014 in News by The Manimal

Source: Detroit News

Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr., who spent 57 years as an employee and board member of Ford Motor Co., died Sunday of pneumonia in his Grosse Pointe Shores home.

Ford, 88, helped steer the company into the modern era while also serving as a guiding hand for the Ford family. He linked Ford Motor Co.’s past and future as the last surviving grandchild of company founder Henry Ford and the father of current Executive Chairman William Clay Ford Jr.

Ford held key posts on Ford’s board of directors and played a pivotal role in shaping the company for more than half of its 110-year history. He also was instrumental in setting the company’s design direction and served as chairman of the Design Committee for 32 years.

He led the team that developed the 1956 Continental Mark II, regarded as one of the classic automobiles of all time.

Alan Mulally, Ford president and CEO, said in a statement, “Mr. Ford had a profound impact on Ford Motor Co. The company extends its deepest sympathies to the many members of the extended Ford family at this difficult time. While we mourn Mr. Ford’s death, we also are grateful for his many contributions to the company and the auto industry.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said, “His commitment to the city was never more evident than it was with his decision to move the Detroit Lions back downtown to the stadium that bears his family’s name. That vote of confidence in Detroit was an important piece of the redevelopment of downtown that has since taken place.”

Born in Detroit on March 14, 1925, William Clay Ford Sr. was the youngest son of Edsel B. Ford’s four children. He attended Detroit University School in Grosse Pointe and the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. He enlisted in the Naval Air Corps in 1943 and attended the University of Michigan as part of his naval training. He was in flight training at the time of his discharge two years later. He then enrolled at Yale University, where he graduated in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Ford was elected to the company’s board of directors on June 4, 1948, embarking on a career and association with the company that would span more than six decades, including the company’s celebration of its centennial in 2003. At the annual meeting that year, he shared his unique perspective on the company’s history with shareholders, including stories about being taught to drive by Henry Ford and taken for his first airplane ride by Charles Lindbergh in a Ford Tri-Motor.

It was a rare moment of public reflection for Ford, who once characterized his key contributions to the company as helping the design department and providing a stabilizing influence on the company’s board of directors. He was also immensely proud of the Ford family’s role in building and sustaining the company.

“I don’t have a crystal ball with me, so I can’t see into the future,” he told shareholders at the company’s centennial annual meeting. “I just want you to know that we have tremendous pride in the Ford name. We have a spirit of working together and we have a passion for cars. And we also have a great desire to see the Ford name in the forefront of world transportation.”

He had a special relationship with his grandfather. When William Clay Ford Sr. was 10 years old, Henry Ford gave him a driving lesson. The youngster sat on his famous grandfather’s lap, steering the car and controlling the speed by throttle while Henry Ford took care of braking and shifting. Unfortunately, while driving 70 mph down a rural road outside of Dearborn, the two were stopped by a police officer. The officer let the elder Ford off with a lecture. Then, unbeknownst to Henry Ford, the officer phoned his wife, Clara Ford, who was waiting for her husband and grandson when they arrived back home.

“Her first words were, ‘Billy, you go to your room, and Henry — I want to talk to you,’ ” Ford said. “After that, any time we left the property, I was in the passenger seat.”

In 1952, Ford was put in charge of a group of engineers and designers engaged in planning the Continental Mark II, successor to the classic Lincoln Continental developed under the direction of his father, Edsel Ford, and introduced in 1939. The Continental Mark II was considered by many to be one of the greatest cars ever built.

Ford told the Henry Ford Museum that he wanted to closely follow the designs of the original Continental. That included matching the ratio of window glass to sheet metal, recreating the intimate feel of the interior controls, as well as mounting the spare tire within an impression in the sheet metal of the trunk, recalling the original Continental’s outside-mounted spare tire.

“I wanted the spare tire in the back. That was the trademark of a Continental,” he said. “

When the Design Committee of the company’s Policy and Strategy Committee was formed in 1957, Ford became its first chairman, a post he held until he retired from the company in 1989. He was appointed vice president of product design in 1973.

In 1978, Ford was elected chairman of the Executive Committee and appointed a member of the Office of the Chief Executive. He was elected vice chairman of the board in 1980 and chairman of the Finance Committee in 1987. He retired from his post as vice chairman in 1989 and as chairman of the Finance Committee in 1995. In May 2005, he retired as a director.

Ford had numerous associations and roles outside of Ford Motor Co. His relationship with the Detroit Lions began during his childhood in 1934 when his father took him to the University of Detroit Stadium to see the Lions play in their maiden season. In 1963, Ford purchased the team and was its chairman until his death.

In 2002, he brought the Lions back to Detroit when the team moved from Pontiac to Ford Field, a new stadium in the heart of the city’s sports and entertainment district. The $500 million stadium became the overwhelming factor in Detroit being awarded the right to host Super Bowl XL in 2006.

In recognition of his support, Henry Ford Hospital named their sports medicine treatment and research facility, the William Clay Ford Center for Athletic Medicine. The Henry Ford Museum named the great hall of the museum the William Clay Ford Hall of American Innovation in his honor.