Lions owner William Clay Ford dies at 88

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 9, 2014 at 6:04 pm •  Published: March 9, 2014
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Born in 1925 with what was already a household name, Ford was 23 when he joined the Ford Motor Co. board of directors in 1948, one year after the death of his grandfather, Henry Ford.

Ford remained a company director until 2005, later taking the title of director emeritus.

"Mr. Ford had a profound impact on Ford Motor Company," Ford CEO Alan Mulally said in a statement.

He helped institutionalize the practice of professional management atop the company that began with the naming of Philip Caldwell as Ford CEO in 1979 and as Ford chairman in March 1980, without relinquishing the Ford family's control.

As a board member, Ford helped bring the company back under his family's control in 2001, when the directors ousted former CEO Jacques Nasser in favor of William Clay Ford Jr.

The youngest of Edsel B. Ford's four children, Ford Sr. was first elected to the Ford Motor Co. board in June 1948. He rarely spoke publicly but was reflective during the company's centennial year in 2003. At the annual meeting, he told stories about his grandfather teaching him to drive at age 10, and of being taken for his first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-Motor by Charles Lindbergh.

"I just want you to know that we have tremendous pride in the Ford name," he told the shareholders more than a decade ago. "We have a spirit of working together, and we have a passion for cars. And we also have a great desire to see the Ford name in the forefront of world transportation."

Ford was more comfortable watching his Lions than maneuvering in the corporate boardroom. By the time he became a Ford director, his brother, Henry Ford II, was firmly in control of the company.

The Lincoln Continental Mark II, his biggest project, was an early attempt by Ford to compete with General Motors' Cadillac brand, which at the time had cornered the market for luxury cars sold to a growing class of affluent Americans, according to Gerald Meyers, a University of Michigan business professor who worked at Ford in the 1950s.

But the car was killed off in 1957 after being on sale only two years, a victim of poor marketing and Henry Ford II's indifference toward his brother's pet project.

"He put his whole life into that car," Meyers said in an interview with the AP. "This was to be the beginning of the high-priced luxury vehicles for the Ford Motor Co. that they didn't have. It would lead the company into the broader market more like General Motors had become. It didn't turn out that way."

The car was a frustrating start to a series of efforts to make Lincoln a top luxury brand, efforts that continue today.

Although Ford personified the family's influence over the company for years, he seldom had a profound impact on it, Meyers said. He was often overshadowed by his brother, Henry Ford II, who fired flamboyant president and Mustang father Lee Iacocca in 1978. But Meyers said William Clay Ford would have had to approve such a bold move to get rid of Iacocca, who went on to lead rival Chrysler.

Ford always kept the Lions close to his heart and was loyal perhaps to a fault.

While each of Detroit's other three professional franchises — the Red Wings, Pistons and Tigers — have won at least one championship in relatively recent decades, the Lions were synonymous with losing under Ford.

He seemed to lead the Lions with a light touch, leaving most decisions up to administrators such as Russ Thomas, Chuck Schmidt, Millen and current general manager Martin Mayhew.

In league circles, he was very popular.

"For five decades, Mr. Ford's passion for the Lions, Detroit, and the NFL was the foundation of one of the NFL's historic franchises," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "As an NFL owner, Mr. Ford helped bring the NFL through enormous periods of change and growth, always guided by his commitment to what was best for the NFL and his beloved Lions."

Ford was married to the former Martha Parke Firestone, an heiress to the Akron, Ohio, rubber fortune. Her grandfather, Harvey Firestone, was a close friend of Henry Ford. They had three daughters, a son, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher contributed to this report.

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