DETROIT (AP) — William Clay Ford, the last surviving grandchild of automotive pioneer Henry Ford and owner of the Detroit Lions, has died. He was 88.
Ford Motor Co. said in a statement Sunday that Ford died of pneumonia at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Ford helped steer the family business for more than five decades. He bought one of his own, the NFL franchise in the Motor City, a half-century ago.
He served as an employee and board member of the automaker for more than half of its 100-year history.
"My father was a great business leader and humanitarian who dedicated his life to the company and the community," William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. and Lions vice chairman, said in a statement. "He also was a wonderful family man, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather."
To the masses in Detroit, Ford was simply the owner of the Lions who struggled to achieve success on the field despite showing his passion for winning by spending money on free agents, coaches, executives and facilities.
"In so many NFL locker rooms, if the owner is around, players put their heads down and hope not to get noticed," former Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers receiver Johnnie Morton said Sunday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "In Detroit, I noticed right away that players would go up to him to say hello. One time, I hollered, `Big Willie is in the house,’ when he walked in the locker room. Some guys were looking at me like I was about to get cut, but then Mr. Ford later came over and cracked up about it.
"It became my pregame ritual to call him `Big Willie,’ and sometimes I’d tell him, `If we win today, the postgame was going to be at your house tonight.’ He was just a genuine, down-to-earth, cool dude — the epitome of people from Michigan — that just happened to own a car company and the Lions."
Ford’s first full season leading the Lions was in 1964, seven years after the franchise won the NFL title. The lone playoff victory he enjoyed was in 1992. The Lions are the only team to go 0-16 in a season, hitting rock bottom in 2008 after he finally fired general manager Matt Millen, a Super Bowl-winning linebacker and TV analyst he hired to lead the franchise without any front-office experience.
After an 11-year drought, the Lions improved enough to make the playoffs in 2011 only to lose a combined 21 games over the next two seasons.
Ford moved the club from Tiger Stadium in Detroit to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975 before bringing his team back downtown.
"No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions," Lions President Tom Lewand said in a statement released by the team. "Those of us who had the opportunity to work for Mr. Ford knew of his unyielding passion for his family, the Lions and the city of Detroit. 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."
Ford Field — a spectacular 65,000-seat, $315 million indoor stadium — opened in 2002 that, coupled with a state-of-the-art team headquarters in nearby Allen Park, gave the Lions the best facilities money could buy.
But a blueprint for consistently winning was elusive. From Ford’s first season as team owner to his last, the Lions won 310 games, lost 441 and tied 13. His .441 winning percentage with the Lions was the NFL’s worst among teams that existed in 1964, according to STATS LLC.
"Detroit is a football town with fans who want to win — bad — but what they miss is Mr. Ford wanted to win more than any of the fans did," Millen told the AP on Sunday. "For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to. He was willing to try anything and he did."
Born into an automotive fortune in 1925 bearing 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, 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 — especially to former general manager Millen — 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.
Funeral services will be private, fittingly for a man who didn’t let the public get to know him.
"I wish people knew the Mr. Ford that I knew," Millen told the AP. "He was a very, very fascinating guy who played golf with President (Dwight) Eisenhower, ran with the Rat Pack, talked to President (John) Kennedy on the phone. As a kid who grew up sitting at the foot of a grandpa who invested everything, talking to him was a history lesson and I absolutely loved it every time."