William Clay Ford Sr. remembered for 57-year legacy at Ford Motor

William Clay Ford Sr., the father of current executive chairman William Clay Ford Jr., joined the company board of directors in 1948.

UPDATED: 3/10/14 3:14 pm ET - adds details

DETROIT -- William Clay Ford Sr., who took driving lessons at age 10 from his grandfather Henry Ford and once flew with legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, is being remembered for helping steer Ford Motor Co. for more than 57 years.

The former company vice chairman and Henry Ford's last surviving grandson died Sunday of pneumonia at age 88 at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich., the automaker said in a statement.

He became a board member in 1948 at the age of 23 and retired as a director in 2005. In between, his roles ranged from creating an iconic car, the Continental Mark II, to watching his son, William Clay Ford Jr., guide the company as CEO.

On the board of directors, William Clay Ford Sr. had long been a member of the powerful Finance Committee and chaired the group from 1987 through 1995. Starting in the late 1950s, he chaired the company's Design Committee for 32 years.

William Clay Ford was born in Detroit on March 14, 1925, the youngest of the four children of Eleanor Clay and Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s only child.

He attended Detroit University School in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., according to a company biography. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy’s Air Corps in 1943 and was in flight training when he was discharged two years later at the end of World War II.

In 1947 he married the former Martha Firestone, whose grandfather, Harvey, had founded the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. and was friends with Henry Ford. They had three daughters and one son.

Ford graduated from Yale University in 1949 with a degree in economics, then joined Ford Motor’s sales and advertising staff. In 1951 he became quality-control manager for the Lincoln-Mercury Division’s jet-engine defense project.

Time magazine put Ford and his two brothers on its May 18, 1953, cover, with Henry Ford II, the company’s president, at the wheel of a convertible.

'Handsome, athletic, charming'

William Clay Ford “was handsome, athletic, charming and, unlike [brother] Benson, showed some flair for the company business, both in design and finance,” Automotive News wrote in a 2003 retrospective that addressed Henry Ford II’s higher rank among the siblings.

Bill Ford was made general manager of the Continental Division in 1954.

The two-door Continental Mark II was the most expensive car sold by the company. It also lost money, and plans to expand the lineup were abandoned. Over Bill Ford’s objections, the division was folded into Lincoln shortly after the company’s initial public offering in 1956.

“Just as Ford stock was being sold to the public, and the company was being reorganized along the lines of GM so that it was no longer a family business in the same sense that it had been for over a half century, the family drama involving the isolation of Benson and Bill reached its denouement,” authors Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote in their 1987 book, The Fords: An American Epic.

“Bill, the family’s high achiever, began a long night of the soul in which he would test his lower limits.”

The same book chronicled how Bill Ford battled brother Henry and others to get the Ford family 40 percent voting control of the automaker at the time of the IPO, instead of a proposed 25 percent. He prevailed, helping preserve the family's influence ever since.

He was also owner of the NFL's Detroit Lions after buying full control of the franchise for $4.5 million in 1964. The Lions said Monday that ownership of the team will transfer to his wife, Martha Firestone Ford, 88, and William Clay Ford Jr. would remain vice chairman.

“Pursuant to long-established succession plans, Mr. Ford’s controlling interest in the Lions passes to Mrs. Martha Ford. She and her four children will continue to be involved in the ownership of the franchise, as they have during Mr. Ford’s tenure,” the Lions said.

Surviving family

In addition to his son and his wife of 66 years, he is survived by daughters Martha Ford Morse, Sheila Ford Hamp, and Elizabeth Ford Kontulis; 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

William Clay Ford Jr., left, with his father at Ford Motor Co.'s annual shareholders meeting in 2003. Photo credit: Bloomberg

“My father was a great business leader and humanitarian who dedicated his life to the company and the community,” William Clay Ford Jr. said in a statement. “He also was a wonderful family man, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, yet he will continue to inspire us all.”

Ford CEO Alan Mulally said in the statement: “Mr. Ford had a profound impact on Ford Motor Company. The company extends its deepest sympathies to the many members of the extended Ford family at this difficult time. While we mourn Mr. Ford’s death, we also are grateful for his many contributions to the company and the auto industry.”

'Eye for styling'

Brother Benson died in 1978; Henry Ford II died in 1987; and sister Josephine Ford died in 2005.

The death of Henry II made William Sr. the family patriarch, and he would help preside over family meetings to monitor company finances.

Nick Scheele, a former Ford Motor president and former CEO of Jaguar Cars, said William Sr. was one of the key supporters of Ford's 1990 purchase of Jaguar, the British sports-car maker, and appreciated fine European design.

"You could see it in his Continental Mark II," Scheele said. "He had a great eye for styling."

In 1999, William Sr. saw his son become chairman. Two years later, directors ousted Jacques Nasser as chief executive and Bill Jr. took over. As CEO, Bill Jr. would oversee two restructuring plans. In 2006, in the midst of a company-record $12.6 billion loss, he yielded that post to Mulally, who led a turnaround that restored profits.

William Sr. shunned the spotlight, but at times talked about his grandfather giving him his first driving lesson at age 10 -- they were going 70 miles per hour with young William in Henry's lap when a policeman stopped them.

As head of the Continental Division from 1954-56, William Clay Ford led development of the 1956 Continental Mark II, successor to the classic Lincoln Continental developed under the direction of his father, Edsel Ford.

He rarely spoke publicly but was reflective during celebrations marking the company's centennial in 2003.

At the company's annual shareholder meeting that year, he told stories about his grandfather teaching him to drive at age 10, and of being taken for his first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-Motor by Charles Lindbergh.

"I just want you to know that we have tremendous pride in the Ford name," he told Ford shareholders at the meeting. "We have a spirit of working together, and we have a passion for cars. And we also have a great desire to see the Ford name in the forefront of world transportation."

Private service

Funeral services will be held privately. He would have marked his 89th birthday on Friday, March 14.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent in the name of William Clay Ford to the Henry Ford Museum at 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, MI 48124 or to Dr. Scott Dulchavsky’s Innovation Institute at Henry Ford Health System, 2799 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, MI 48045.

Ford said company locations in the United States will lower their American and Ford flags to half-staff for a 30-day period.

Bloomberg and Reuters contributed to this report.

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.