Obituary: William Clay Ford / Lions owner helped steer family business

Died March 9, 2014

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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 Mr. Ford died of pneumonia at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Mr. 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, William Clay Ford Sr. 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," said Johnnie Morton, former Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers receiver. "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."

Mr. 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.

From Mr. 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," Mr. Millen told the AP on Sunday. "For a variety of reasons, it didn't work out. ... He was willing to try anything, and he did."

Born into an automotive fortune in 1925 bearing what was already a household name, Mr. 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.

William Clay Ford Sr. 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 William Clay Ford Sr. 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," Mr. 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 didn't turn out that way."

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