DETROIT — 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. He will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, yet he will continue to inspire us all.”
Ford was regarded as a dignified man by the select few who seemed to know him well. To the masses in Detroit, he 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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.
He maintained as low a profile as his name would allow, serving on various executive committees and spearheading the design, development and introduction of the Continental Mark II in 1956. He was elected a Ford vice chairman in 1980 and retired with that title in 1989. 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. “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.”
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 always kept the Lions close to his heart. He knew how much the team meant to people who lived in or grew up in Michigan.
“I think sports are a wonderful diversion,” Ford told The Detroit News in 1980. “People can relate to sports very easily. It’s a quick study.”
But while each of the Motor City’s other three professional franchises — the Red Wings, Pistons and Tigers — won at least one championship, 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, Matt Millen and current general manager Martin Mayhew.
Even though the franchise rarely produced a successful product, the stands are usually filled with fans desperate to witness a winner.
“Detroit, and I’m not blowing smoke at anybody, is probably the greatest fan sports town in the country,” Ford told The News in 1980, the year after a 2-14 team set a franchise attendance record. “They’ll support anything.”
Ford moved the club from Tiger Stadium in Detroit to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975 before bringing his team back downtown.
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.
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.