William Clay Ford: A low profile but some big moments
William Clay Ford Sr., who died last week at 88, kept a low profile at Ford Motor Co. during most of his life. But the grandson of founder Henry Ford was a central figure in three milestone moments in Ford's post-World War II history.
When the company went public in 1956, the original plan called for the Ford family to retain 30 percent of voting shares. But on the day final arrangements were being worked out, Bill Ford walked into the office of his older brother, Henry Ford II, and said: "I don't know about you, Henry, but I like owning this company. Let's be a little more on the safe side and make it forty."
So 40 percent it was -- and continues today.
Bill Ford was in the room on July 13, 1978, when Henry fired Ford President Lee Iacocca. Henry's younger brother was an Iacocca admirer and ally but did not try to block the dismissal.
In a 2005 interview, Iacocca said: "Bill Ford was in my corner, but ... he didn't want to ever contradict [his brother]."
According to Iacocca, Bill said of Henry: "He turned the company around, and I have to be in his shadow. I told Bill: 'Why, you're the smartest son-of-a-bitch of all.'"
The storied meeting in Henry II's office lasted 45 minutes.
"I said ... it's not fair, it's not right," Iacocca recalled. "And Bill starts crying. By the way, we are still good friends with Martha and Bill. They never missed a year of sending me a Christmas card. They're good people."
With the 1985 Taurus, Ford's design team offered changes that went beyond the overall shape: windows flush with the body, considerably less chrome, a lowered front end and tires pushed out to the corners of the body.
Although the rounded shape gradually won acceptance, the decision to delete the traditional grille remained controversial. Designers wanted to replace the usual chrome-covered rectangle with an oval opening.
Debate became so intense that the product development team produced two prototypes, one of which had a traditional grille. Ford's design committee weighed the two, former design boss Jack Telnack once recalled. It was only when Bill Ford, the head of the committee, approved the no-grille design that it went forward.
"It was Bill Ford who said, 'We're going with this one,'" Telnack says. "I just about leapt up and threw my arms around him."