Robin, the acclaimed biography of the late comedian Robin Williams by Dave Itzkoff — now racing up The New York Times best-seller list — has a little something for auto industry historians, too.
It offers a glimpse of the high-wire management culture at Ford Motor Co. in the 1950s and 1960s, when Williams' father, Rob, was a vice president at Lincoln-Mercury Division.
Robin Williams, who killed himself in 2014, spent part of his youth living in the family's mansion in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., then as now an enclave for Detroit's auto aristocracy. His father, who died in 1987, was among the last of a generation of Ford leaders, the one that preceded the finance-focused, elite-educated disciples of the famed Whiz Kids deployed by Henry Ford II in 1945.
Rob Williams quit Kenyon College in Ohio in the 1920s when his family's finances faltered. He went to work and eventually became a Ford plant manager in Kentucky before enlisting in the Navy during World War II.
Itzkoff writes of Williams' Ford executive years: "He was a military veteran with a high school diploma who relished the chance to go toe-to-toe with a management staff that was increasingly younger, more educated and less experienced than he was."
Rob Williams once told Robin's older brother, Todd: "When I pull up to that building in the eastern suburbs and drive into the parking lot, I look up and know there are fifteen young hotshot kids in there, all with MBAs, and they want my job. I'm the big boss. They know I don't have a college degree and they really want to show me up. When I walk in the door, I take a big, deep breath of fresh air and it's just like stepping into the Coliseum."
Eventually, Ford's Young Gladiators got the better of Rob Williams.
"As he saw it," Itzkoff writes," Ford was ignoring his recommendations on its most prominent product lines, and it was time for him to leave."
He retired in 1967 at age 61.