Fond memories of an auto aristocrat
In America, it has been the Fords. For 100 years, people have worked for “Ford’s” knowing that it is a family business. Ever since Henry Ford started building cars on Mack Avenue in Detroit, his family has been an important part of our automotive heritage.
I met Henry Ford II in the early 1970s at a press introduction for the Mustang II. I was told that I would dine that night with the chairman. Being relatively new to the industry and Automotive News, I knew it would be an interesting evening.
Henry was charming and interested in this new fellow who was running his trade paper, which he said he had been reading since he was 7 or 8 years old.
During our dinner, we were served some fine red wine. When I said how much I enjoyed the wine, I discovered two fresh bottles had been placed in front of our two place settings. After dinner, Henry asked me if I had anything planned for the rest of the evening. When I told him no, we left to enjoy a nightcap in the bar, leaving the entourage of PR executives in the lurch. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until his untimely death.
During our first conversation, I called him Mr. Ford, and he insisted that I call him Henry. I always did after that evening.
Calling on the queen
Henry Ford II was a unique corporate individual. If America had had a monarchy, that generation of the Ford family would have qualified. He and his two brothers and sister were raised in a manner that could never happen again. All of the children of that Ford generation go to great lengths to lead lives that are as normal as possible.
But for Henry, it was different. The company was his life; it took precedence over everything else. When he made a business trip to England, it often would be necessary for him to make a courtesy call on the queen. No other CEO had to worry about that.
Henry Ford II started at Ford Motor Co. a bit differently from anyone else.
While attending a dinner party hosted by Bunkie Knudsen and his wife, I spent some time with John Bugas, a man of some historical significance at Ford.
After dinner, Knudsen asked Bugas whether he had told me “the story.” Although Bugas suggested that I wouldn’t be interested, I persisted. Bunkie had thoughtfully supplied a fresh bottle of port that helped with the story.
I was familiar with the story but was delighted to get the firsthand report from Bugas. A national hero in the late 1930s, Bugas was an FBI agent who had gained his reputation by arresting several saboteurs in the Detroit area. His fame caught the eye of Harry Bennett, a powerful rogue who worked for Henry Ford I.
To entice Bugas to come to Ford Motor, Bennett made an offer that included doubling or tripling his pay. Bennett hoped that some of that fame would give his department respectability.
Henry Ford II was mustered out of the Navy to try to run Ford Motor.
Henry II and Bugas, who had become friends, realized that Bennett must leave. After Henry II told Bennett that he was fired, Bugas showed up to ensure that the livid Bennett would leave the premises that day.
Bugas told me that when he left Bennett’s office and walked down a long dark corridor, he wasn’t sure whether Bennett was going to shoot him in the back. It didn’t happen, and Bugas had a long and successful career with Ford.
It took two hours for Bugas to tell me the story.
A different company
Henry Ford II was a remarkable and charming executive. We always got along rather well.
He never told me anything was off the record. He said I’d know what was told in confidence, and I did.
I was pleased that he had a fondness for Automotive News. I think he felt that he had a proprietary interest in his trade paper.
He understood the importance of his dealers. I used to marvel at the amount of time he spent shaking hands at the annual Ford reception during the National Automobile Dealers Association convention.
He told me that he never wanted to forget that dealers were Ford Motor’s customers and that they had a big investment in the company.
Henry Ford II’s son, Edsel, has the same congenial relationship with Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealers.
But there has been a big change since Henry died 15 years ago. Henry’s brother, Bill Ford Sr., is the family patriarch. His son, Bill Jr., is chairman and CEO of Ford Motor.
The company that Bill Ford Jr. runs is much different from the one his uncle ran for four decades.
There are plenty of next-generation Fords. Elena Ford, Henry’s granddaughter, is the first from that generation to join the company.
Many Ford family members covet their privacy and have no taste for jumping into the fray, but I’m betting that we’ll see many more members of the family join Ford Motor.
There aren’t any Rockefellers at Standard Oil anymore, and there are no Durants or Sloans at General Motors. I hope there always will be a Ford at Ford Motor Co. And even if the challenges are greater than they’ve ever been, there are still plenty of Fords who may have the talent and the desire to meet them.