McNamara, the bean counter, did have a product agenda.
“He wanted small cars way back then,” Iacocca once told me. “He wanted pollution controls. I didn’t know what he meant when he talked about emissions in the 1950s. He said we had to start worrying about pollutants. People didn’t know what the hell the ecology was.”
Soon after taking over the Ford Division in 1955, McNamara went out on a limb by adding several safety devices to the 1956 model. Then he promoted the heck out of the 1956 Ford’s five-part Lifeguard System, which included two standard features: a deep-dish steering wheel that gave way in a crash and safety latches that kept doors from springing open on impact.
Three options were offered: front seat belts anchored to a steel plate; a padded instrument panel and padded sun visors; and rearview mirrors with backing that reduced glass fallout when shattered. Also, the front and back seat supports were redesigned to reduce the possibility of their coming loose in a crash.
Indeed, McNamara had a dream. He believed that the number of injuries resulting from auto accidents could be cut in half. But not everyone at Ford was with him. When he had the thousand or so cars in the Ford corporate fleet outfitted with safety belts, hardly any executives used them. Once after flying to Dallas to attend a dealer meeting, he was picked up at the airport by a company driver. When the man saw McNamara fastening his belt, he asked, “What’s the matter, don’t you trust my driving?”
The ’56 Fords sold well for a brief time, but the safety message didn’t resonate with car buyers. In 1955, Chevrolet outsold Ford by 67,000 cars. In 1956 Chevrolet increased the gap to 190,000 units. Henry Ford II grew impatient, finally griping to a reporter, “McNamara is selling safety, but Chevrolet is selling cars.”
The experience spawned a credo that would go unchallenged in the auto industry for decades: Safety doesn’t sell. Yet McNamara had caught a glimpse of the future. In 1965 Congress passed the first federal safety standards, including everything the 1956 Fords had and more.
Had McNamara stayed at Ford until turning 65 in 1981, a much different company might have evolved, one braced for the twin oil crises of the 1970s and one that might not have been caught short when the Japanese came along with well-built, low-priced small cars, powered by fuel-efficient engines. And his record suggests that McNamara would have readied the company for the federal safety regulations of the late 1960s that so perplexed and angered Henry Ford II.
McNamara would have been very good at anticipating and finding solutions to those things,” said Secrest. “He would have got us ready for all of that.”