McNamara brought a modern vision to Ford and became its first president since 1906 who was not a member of the Ford family.
But whereas GM Chairman Sloan created the modern automotive corporation, McNamara was the role model for the bloodless, numbers-oriented manager.
He was president of Ford for just a month before he resigned, effective Jan. 1, 1961, to serve as secretary of defense under President Kennedy.
Yes, his financial controls brought order to a company on the brink following World War II. And yes, the 1960 Falcon he championed was a success. (See story on Page 176.)
His influence came from building Ford's finance department into a powerful force. He pushed safety and functionalism when the economic expansion of the early 1960s prompted consumers to demand more than four-cylinder Falcons.
His legacy of austerity and utilitarianism left Ford's product pipeline filled with "stripped-down compacts and family sedans that auto writers snidely referred to as 'Plain Macs,' " say authors Peter Collier and David Horowitz in The Fords: An American Epic. "GM, meanwhile, was making money with sporty models like the Corvair Monza."
Sloan brought financial controls to GM. He rescued the early GM from bankruptcy. He introduced comprehensive financial control systems to revolutionize the auto industry. And he championed the annual model change.
The new Alfred Sloan?
Industry observer David Cole suggests that Ford was seeking "an equivalent to Alfred Sloan" when McNamara was hired. "Ford in many ways looked to GM" for its executive talent, including Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen and Ernest Breech, says Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sloan had helped GM overtake Ford Motor as the dominant American automobile manufacturer in the 1920s and 1930s. With Ford's fortunes on the rise during the 1950s, Henry Ford II wanted to beat GM.
Sloan was the modern manager of his day, and so was McNamara. McNamara was cold and aloof. He was a bean counter. He believed that statistical analysis and market research were more important than product. It was his job to use numbers to control the product guys.
McNamara's promotion to president of Ford Motor in November 1960 symbolized the rise of the new modern manager.
Would a Robert S. McNamara be considered for the top job in the industry today? It's doubtful. The status of Vice Chairman Robert Lutz at GM reminds us that product is king.
"There is a high risk when you bring in someone without strong experience in an industry," Cole says.
The Whiz Kid
McNamara joined Henry Ford II 's company in 1946 as Henry II was wrestling with the mess left by his grandfather. Ford Motor had lost $85 million within eight months - a stunning amount for the day.
McNamara was the most able of the Whiz Kids, the group of 10 bright, highly educated, ambitious men who worked together in the U.S. Army Air Force and joined Ford as a group in 1946. (See story on Page 134.) They helped modernize Ford.
Ford's turnaround provided Henry Ford II with additional satisfaction: In 1957, Ford outsold Chevrolet for the first time in 22 years.
Observer Cole says McNamara "was a smart guy who adapted quickly." He "created strong financial controls," but "I would be hard- pressed to say there was some lasting legacy."