Appreciation: William Clay Ford Sr. was top auto exec

8:23 PM, Mar 9, 2014   |    comments
Detroit Lions owner and chairman William Clay Ford Sr. walks on the sidelines prior to an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Detroit in 2006(Photo: Paul Sancya AP)
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(USA TODAY) - William Clay Ford Sr. got his first driving lesson from grandfather Henry Ford and took his first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-Motor piloted by Charles Lindbergh.

Though he will be remembered by sports fans as the owner of the NFL's Detroit Lions, Ford made a huge imprint on a postwar Ford Motor when it came to design and overall direction of the company.

Ford, who died Sunday of pneumonia at 88, served the automaker for 57 years as an executive and later as a director. In the early years, he served at the side of his brother, Henry Ford II, as the company prospered in the 1950s and 1960s. In those years, he made a large impact when it came to design.

Then, a generation later, he played a role in returning Ford to family control when the automaker booted Jacques Nassar as its CEO in 2001. Ford's son, William Clay "Bill" Ford Jr., took over and successfully revived Ford until the current CEO, Alan Mulally, took over in 2006.

"The Ford Motor Company has always been part of my life and I continue to draw a lot of energy from this wonderful and exciting business," William Clay Ford Sr. said when he retired from Ford's board in 2005.

Ford's timing couldn't have been better. He was born into a family that had already become Detroit dynasty and hero to many everyday Americans on the strength of the Model T. He was the youngest son of Edsel Ford.

One of his fondest and earliest memories was riding in the lap of his grandfather Henry Ford as the two drove through the countryside. The tyke was allowed to steer the car while grandpa worked the pedals. A policeman pulled them over and berated the Ford Motor founder for endangering himself and the child. The cop didn't cite him, but apparently phoned the Ford estate so that Henry's wife could intervene when they arrived home.

Later, his first flight was in the Ford Tri-Motor, a three-engine "Tin Goose" that was one of the first successful commercial aircraft, piloted by Lindbergh, then famous for having flown the Atlantic solo to Paris.

William Clay Ford Sr. served in the Navy, attended Yale and joined Ford in 1949. For 32 years, he was head the automaker's design committee. Some of his best-known work came around the Lincoln Continental Mark II, considered one of the most beautiful cars of all time.

In 1978, Mr. Ford was elected chairman of Ford's executive committee, one of several posts he would hold on the board. He was married for 66 years to Martha Firestone Ford, granddaughter of Henry Ford's buddy Harvey Firestone, the tire magnate. They had four children.

Ironically, when the family had to step in to resurrect Ford more than a decade ago, the debacle causing the company's troubles was a rash of rollover accidents involving Ford Explorer SUVs -- fitted with Firestone tires.

"My father was a great business leader and humanitarian who dedicated his life to the company and the community," said William Clay Ford Jr., who himself is now executive chairman of Ford Motor. "He will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, yet he will continue to inspire us all."

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