Subscribe to Print and Digital for only $109!

Among 3 brothers, Henry II muscled his way to the top

In 1953, the year of Ford Motor Co.'s Golden Jubilee, the three Ford brothers of the third generation still were widely viewed as a kind of package deal.

Henry II was clearly the boss and increasingly was flexing his muscles, and a Time magazine cover showed him, Benson (then general manager of Lincoln-Mercury and a vice president) and William Clay (also a vice president and head of Ford's Special Products Operations) together in a car. It was clear who was driving.

Try as he might, the gregarious and insecure Benson was not able to emerge from the shadow of brother Henry, who was two years older. By the late 1950s, Benson's drinking had become so bad and so public that Henry II asked him to stay away from the office.

Benson had suffered a heart attack in 1957, when he was only 39, so there was some excuse for the supposed retirement. He spent the rest of his life tippling and sailing his yachts, succumbing to his second heart attack aboard one of them on Michigan's Cheboygan River in 1978.

It was easier for William Clay Ford to compete. He was handsome, athletic, charming and, unlike Benson, showed some flair for the company business, both in design and finance. Perhaps most important, he was eight years younger than Henry II and had been allowed to develop more independently.

A division was formed for his pet project, the Continental, in 1955, but Henry II allowed Ernest Breech to pull the plug in 1956.

William Clay Ford, too, began abusing alcohol but eventually found sobriety.

In 1964, after three years as the team's president, William Clay Ford bought the Detroit Lions. The football team's feckless fortunes since then notwithstanding, it is indisputably his. He virtually disappeared from Ford Motor Co.'s affairs until 1979, when Henry II briefly dangled the chairmanship in front of him, only to snatch it away at the last minute in favor of Philip Caldwell.

William Clay Ford was one of Lee Iacocca's most ardent advocates, and Iacocca was counting on his support when the showdown with Henry II came. But, when the time came, Henry's will was not to be thwarted.

More than any of his siblings, William Clay Ford resembled his father, Edsel, both physically and in his passion for design. He never tried to steer his children into the company, yet, ironically, his son, Bill Ford Jr., now is at the company's helm.

You can reach Jeff Mortimer at (Unknown address)

ATTENTION COMMENTERS: Automotive News has monitored a significant increase in the number of personal attacks and abusive comments on our site. We encourage our readers to voice their opinions and argue their points. We expect disagreement. We do not expect our readers to turn on each other. We will be aggressively deleting all comments that personally attack another poster, or an article author, even if the comment is otherwise a well-argued observation. If we see repeated behavior, we will ban the commenter. Please help us maintain a civil level of discourse.

Email Newsletters
  • General newsletters
  • (Weekdays)
  • (Mondays)
  • (As needed)
  • Video newscasts
  • (Weekdays)
  • (Weekdays)
  • (Saturdays)
  • Special interest newsletters
  • (Thursdays)
  • (Tuesdays)
  • (Monthly)
  • (Monthly)
  • (Wednesdays)
  • (Bimonthly)
  • Special reports
  • (As needed)
  • (As needed)
  • Communication preferences
  • You can unsubscribe at any time through links in these emails. For more information, see our Privacy Policy.