William Clay Ford, Detroit Lions owner, Ford chair, dies

William Clay Ford, the last surviving grandchild of automotive pioneer Henry Ford and owner of the Detroit Lions football team died Sunday. He was 88.

Wiliam Clay Ford was 88 and was Henry Ford's last surviving grandchild

William Clay Ford, who helped steer Ford Motor Co. for more than five decades and owned the NFL's Detroit Lions, died at the age of 88. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press File)

William Clay Ford, the last surviving grandchild of automotive pioneer Henry Ford and owner of the Detroit Lions football team died Sunday. He was 88.

Ford Motor Co. said in a statement Sunday that Ford died of pneumonia at his home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Ford helped steer the family business for more than five decades. He bought one of his own, the National Football League 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."

Lions struggled under Ford

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."

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'

"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," former Lions General Manager Matt 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 the youngest of Edsel B. Ford's four children. He 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.

Brought Ford Motor Co. back

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 favour of William Clay Ford Jr.

Ford 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.

Lions synonymous with losing

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.

But while each of the Motor City's other three professional franchises — ice hockey's Red Wings, basketball's Pistons and baseball's Tigers — won at least one championship, the Lions were synonymous with losing under Ford.

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.


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