Q&A: Henry Ford II was the last of dying breed: The tycoon
Bidwell spent 27 years at Ford Motor Co., working alongside Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca and earning a reputation for sales and marketing savvy.
Bidwell joined Ford in 1953, eventually working as general manager of Ford Division and Lincoln-Mercury Division. In 1978, he was named vice president of the Car and Truck Group for Ford North American Automotive Operations.
After leaving Ford, Bidwell was president and COO of Hertz Corp. from 1981 to 1983. He then joined Chrysler Corp. and retired as Chrysler Motors Corp. chairman on Dec. 31, 1990.
Bidwell, 75, spoke with Mary Connelly.
What is your most vivid memory of Henry Ford II?
In the late 1970s, we were working on the so-called Erica program that became the Ford Escort. It was going to be a couple-billion-dollar program. It was a huge investment in those days. It wasn’t going to make any money, but we had to do it for fuel-economy purposes.
It was a Memorial Day weekend, and we were in the design center. I also was championing a program called the Monica, a competitor to General Motors’ X cars, a compact. We could make a little money on it.
It was a Friday afternoon. He and I were the last people to leave the meeting. He said, “Ben, do you have a minute?” I said sure.
It was sweltering hot. So I got my Cougar because it had air conditioning. He probably had never ridden in a Cougar. He got in, and he said he was going to vote for the Erica program at the board meeting next week. But not the Monica program.
“I just committed $2 billion of my family’s money, and I don’t want to go for another billion. I don’t want to put my family that deeply in hock,” he said.
It demonstrated to me the difference between a private family company and a public company like GM. It hit home to me that he was the last industrial tycoon funding major programs in effect out of his pocket.
Was the Monica ever made?
No. Lee (Iacocca) went over to Chrysler. Hal Sperlich was there. Chrysler had the K car, which was the perfect platform for what became the minivan. We (at Ford) were unable to do the minivan — which we called the Minimax — because it had to be low-floor front-wheel drive. The Escort wasn’t big enough or wide enough. So in effect the Minimax program from Ford was done at Chrysler because the platform existed there. Had we done the Monica, we would have had the platform to do what became the fwd minivan.
Can you share a memorable story of those two men: Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca?
I don’t think that is a subject that I want to get into. I liked them both, and I was caught in the middle.
What is your recollection of a past tough time at Ford?
The whole period of the 1970s and the Arab oil embargo and business going down the chute.
Too many inexpensive low-profit cars. Henry Ford used to say: “Little cars, little profit.” It was very difficult. By the time I got to Chrysler, it was the same thing only worse.
What is the most memorable event at Ford in which you played a part?
When I went to Lincoln-Mercury in March 1970, the division was floundering. It was going nowhere.
Two things saved us. We went from about a
2 percent market share company to 6 percent.
One was the Mark IV and the other, perhaps more importantly, was bringing in the Capri. We went over 100,000 vehicles the first year. It helped hold the dealer organization together.
Both came out in the fall of 1970 as 1971 models.
The Mark IV was a legitimate competitor to the Cadillac Eldorado. At Lincoln, we had never had a vehicle that went head-to-head and outsold the facing Cadillac vehicle.
The Capri was imported from Germany. At that end of the market, price sensitivity was important. The British Capri was going to cost $150 to $200 less. But I was convinced the German quality was sufficiently better, so we made the decision to go with the German version.
What makes Ford Motor Co. special?
The tradition and the history.
It was never perceived as the big, sprawling behemoth that GM was in those days. It was a more personal company. The people were a little more adventurous and colorful. It was probably a company more fun to work in than GM in those days.
What is your favorite Ford vehicle?
The original 1955 two-seater Thunderbird. That would be followed by the original Mustang.
Why the Thunderbird?
It was a very exciting car. They screwed it up when they made it a four-door. It lost its personality.
What would you like to be remembered for that people don’t associate with you?
Leading the crusade in the late 1970s that ultimately eliminated the 10-day sales report.
It drove us crazy. Every 10 days you ran your field force around dealer-to-dealer getting IBM tickets, sweeping the system clean in order to show a decent period. It was a total waste of time.