Henry Nolte Jr., former chief counsel to 3 Ford CEOs, dies at 90

Henry Nolte Jr., left, at Ford's shareholders meeting in 1985 with William Clay Ford, Philip Caldwell, Donald Petersen, William Caldwell and Sidney Kelly.

Photo credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University
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DETROIT -- Henry Nolte Jr., who was chief in-house legal counsel to three Ford Motor Co. CEOs from 1974 to 1989, died Monday in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 90.

Nolte was a central figure in some of the most famous episodes in Ford history, including the firing of company President Lee Iacocca in 1978 and the controversy and legal cases surrounding the Ford Pinto in the 1970s and early 1980s.

He was viewed as a close confidant of former CEO Henry Ford II and a fierce defender of the automaker and the industry, especially in times of federal scrutiny.

Former Ford CFO Allan Gilmour called Nolte “an outstanding lawyer who attracted good people to work for him.”

Nolte was born in New York City and graduated from Duke University in 1947, after serving as a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy during World War II. He earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and joined Ford’s legal staff in 1961 after working at the prestigious New York City-based law firm Cravath, Swain & Moore.

One year later, he became general counsel for Ford’s Philco car-radio unit, then was vice president and general counsel of Ford of Europe from 1967 to 1969. In 1971, Nolte was appointed associate general counsel of Ford. He assumed the general counsel position three years later.

During Nolte’s 15-year tenure as general counsel -- under CEOs Henry Ford II, Philip Caldwell and Don Petersen -- the company was involved in several nationally publicized legal battles. These included allegations of payoffs to Indonesian officials by Ford II, Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigations and the Indiana vs. Ford Motor Co. case, which charged the company with the criminal homicide of three teenage girls related to the Pinto’s faulty gas tank that, over time, had been linked to an estimated 500 deaths.

When the FTC continued to ask for documents in a 1980 antitrust investigation, he called the action “particularly inappropriate at this time when the industry is faced with the need to make unprecedented expenditures to meet government requirements and when unfavorable market conditions have adversely affected profitability.”

Nolte was understood to have had a close relationship with Henry Ford II, whom he worked with for five years before Ford retired as CEO in 1979.

“He admired Ford II quite a bit,” Robert Rewey, former group vice president of marketing and sales, said of Nolte.

When Henry Ford II fired Iacocca in July 1978, it was up to Nolte to negotiate severance terms, stock options and pension rights for the Ford president. Iacocca wrote about that in his 1984 autobiography.

“Looking back on this episode, what sticks in my craw is [Ford board member] Carter Burgess and Henry Nolte, Ford’s chief counsel, mouthing platitudes about how they wanted to be fair but couldn’t set any precedents on financial settlements because of ‘stockholder interests.’”

When Nolte retired from the company in 1989, then-CEO Petersen told The New York Times, “[Nolte] was instrumental in the formation of Ford of Europe, led company and industry efforts to meet the national product liability crisis and played a key role in representing business viewpoints during the tax law changes of the 1980s.”

After his departure from Ford, Nolte became chairman of Michigan-based law firm Miller Canfield.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. July 19 at Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., followed by a reception at Bloomfield Hills Country Club. He is survived by his wife, Frances Nolte, four children and eight grandchildren.

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