To most of those who knew him, he was simply “Mr. Ford,” the dignified yet surprisingly modest man who had a long and surprisingly varied career that ranged from the automotive design studio to the football field – as well as a wide range of community activities.
William Clay Ford Sr. passed away on Sunday at his Michigan home after suffering from pneumonia, six days before his 89th birthday. The father of current Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford Jr., he was also the last surviving grandchild of the company’s founder, Henry Ford, and a bridge between two very different generations.
“My father was a great business leader and humanitarian who dedicated his life to the company and the community,” son William Clay Ford Jr., said in a statement. “He also was a wonderful family man, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.”
The brother of an earlier Ford Chairman, Henry Ford II, William Clay Ford Sr. was born on March 14, 1925. That was more than two years before his grandfather would finally order the halt to production of the Model T, the “Tin Lizzy” that helped Ford Motor Co. become one of the world’s dominant and most successful automotive manufacturers.
It was expected that he would join the family firm, but like the brother often known as “Hank the Deuce,” Bill Ford was sidelined by World War II, serving in the Navy Air Corps even as Ford Motor Co. rolled out a stream of bombers to fuel the U.S. war effort. After being mustered out, he finished his undergraduate work at Yale University and then joined Ford Motor Co.
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His personal aspirations were more modest than his brother’s – Henry Ford II being yanked out of active service during the final days of the war to help save the family company. Bill Ford preferred to focus on automotive styling and would spend 32 years as head of the maker’s design committee.
For a short time, he headed the Continental Division – later merged into Lincoln – and oversaw the development of the heralded Continental Mark II considered by many perhaps the most beautiful luxury car Ford Motor Co. has ever produced. During his years working at the company, Ford was said to have had only two pictures on his wall: the Mark II and the original Continental, which was developed by his father, Edsel Ford.
“A lot of the design risks the company took in the 1950s and 1960s were spearheaded by him,” said Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.
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Bill Ford was not one for spending much time in the limelight. Even after the family named a ship in his honor, the ore freighter SS William Clay Ford, he preferred to spend most of his time working behind the scenes. But he remained a powerful force, spending several years on the powerful Finance Committee and remaining on the Ford Motor Co. Board of Directors for 57 years, retiring only in 2005, at the age of 80.
As much as his heart was part of the Ford Motor Co., his real passion was for the NFL team he acquired on November 22, 1963 –the same day Pres. John F. Kennedy was assassinated — for a mere $4.5 million. At the time, the Detroit Lions was still a powerhouse in the football league. But the team wouldn’t remain that way. It is one of the few never to make it into the Super Bowl and, in fact, has not had a playoff victory since 1992, the team losing its last post-season game in 2011. The biggest indignity came in 2008 when it became the only NFL team ever to go 0 and 16 for an entire season. Under Ford’s ownership, the Lions had a .441 winning percentage.
Despite the seemingly endless disappointments, “No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions,” Lions President Tom Lewand said in a statement.
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As Ford has aged, a number of questions have been raised about what will happen to the team which opened its own stadium in downtown Detroit a decade ago. For the moment, at least, the family said that decision will be postponed. Son Bill Ford Jr. has served as second-in-command for a number of years and is expected to take over the lead for now.
Along with his work for the Ford Motor Co. and the Lions, Bill Ford Sr. remained an active community member, a philanthropist whose time and money were tapped for a wide range of causes, from the arts to medicine. Among those was the Henry Ford Hospital established by his grandfather more than a century ago.
Ford has been in increasingly frail health in recent years and was even less visible than in years past.
According to an annual Forbes Magazine survey released last year, he was the 371st wealthiest American, with an approximate net worth of $1.4 billion – and was the single largest shareholder in the Ford Motor Co.
William Clay Ford Sr. was married to the former Martha Parke Firestone, an heiress to the Ohio, rubber fortune and granddaughter of Harvey Firestone, a long-time friend of Henry Ford. They had three daughters, a son, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.