William Clay Ford, Automaker Heir, Lions Owner, Dies at 88

William Clay Ford, the last surviving grandchild of Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford and the owner of the Detroit Lions football team, has died of pneumonia, according to the automaker. He was 88.

In 57 years with the company that bears his family name, Ford rose to vice chairman, a post he held until 1989. He relinquished his director’s seat in 2005. Among his jobs along the way, he was vice president and general manager of Ford’s Continental Division. According to a company biography, he oversaw the development of the Continental Mark II, widely considered an automotive classic.

“Mr. Ford had a profound impact on Ford Motor,” Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally said in a statement yesterday. “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.”

Though Ford never ran the company personally, he spent his life around its top executives. His father, Edsel, was president from 1919 until 1943. His son, William Jr., known as Bill, was CEO from 2001 to 2006 and remains chairman. For much of William Clay Ford’s life the company was run by his oldest brother, Henry II, who took the reins in 1945, when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and remained CEO until 1979.

For decades, Ford “left company affairs mostly to Henry while he himself focused on his professional football team,” Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White wrote in “Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry.”

No Trophy

Ford bought the Detroit Lions of the National Football League in November 1963 and took over in 1964; the team never became champions on his watch and posted only 14 winning seasons. Its one playoff victory in 11 post-season games followed the 1991 season.

The 2008 Detroit Lions became the only team in NFL history to lose all 16 regular-season games. Other teams had gone winless in shorter seasons, including the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were 0-14.

After a painful run of 31 wins and 84 losses under team president Matt Millen, a former player and broadcaster, Ford’s own son joined a public outcry for change in September 2008.

“It was an embarrassment, the fans deserve better, and if it were in my authority -- which it’s not -- I’d make some significant changes,” Bill Ford said. Two days later, his father fired Millen.

“No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions,” Detroit Lions President Tom Lewand said in a statement. “His leadership, integrity, kindness, humility and good humor were matched only by his desire to bring a Super Bowl championship to the Lions and to our community. Each of us in the organization will continue to relentlessly pursue that goal in his honor.”

Flight Training

William Clay Ford was born on March 14, 1925, in Detroit, the youngest of four children of Edsel Ford and the former Eleanor Clay.

He attended Detroit University School in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, 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.

Continental Shift

His work on the Continental Mark II carried on the efforts of his father, who had directed development of the Lincoln Continental.

He became a director of the Detroit Lions in 1956, while the team was in the midst of a successful run that included three championships. He became team president in 1961 and owner in 1964. Martha, his widow, now has the controlling ownership of the team.

He was the first chairman of Ford Motor’s policy and strategy design committee, formed in 1957. He became vice president for product design in 1973, chairman of the executive committee in 1978 and vice chairman in 1980.

The 1987 death of his older brother, Henry II, made him the family patriarch, and he would help preside over family meetings to monitor company finances. In 1999, he saw his son, Bill, become chairman. Two years later, directors ousted Jacques Nasser as CEO and Bill took over. As CEO, Bill 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.

Members of the Ford family hold 70.9 million B shares, giving them 40 percent voting control, according to the company’s most recent 10K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. William Clay Ford held 6.18 million of those shares, or 8.7 percent, as of Feb. 1, 2013, the company said in its proxy statement last year. In addition to his wife and son, he’s survived by three daughters: Martha “Muffy” Morse, Sheila Hamp and Elizabeth Kontulis.

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