William Clay Ford, who once steered a car from his grandfather Henry Ford’s lap but, overshadowed by his brash older brother, Henry II, never got the chance to run the family business, died Sunday at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Ford’s last surviving grandchild, he was 88.
The cause was pneumonia, Ford Motor Co. said.
Ford, who also was the longtime owner of the Detroit Lions football team, represented the automaker’s last direct link to the days when the company belonged entirely to the Ford family. He was long the company’s largest shareholder, and the last Ford family member to be a confidant of Henry Ford, the American legend who made the automobile accessible to the masses.
As vice chairman of Ford and the leader of powerful board committees, he provided stability, perspective and stewardship of the family’s interest. Under company bylaws, Ford family members retained 40 percent of voting power, even as their proportion of common stock slipped to less than 2 percent.
Through his marriage to Martha Parke Firestone, granddaughter of tire magnate Harvey Firestone, Ford united two of America’s industrial dynasties. Ford has bought millions of Firestone tires.
He was appointed to the Ford board while still a student at Yale and joined the company after graduation in 1949. In 1952, he headed a group that came up with a new edition of the Lincoln Continental, a luxury car so elegant it had been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. The new model, the Continental Mark II, was a hit.
“He had exquisite taste, and he knew when an idea was right,” John Reinhart, the Continental’s chief stylist, told Automobile Quarterly in 1974.
It was Henry II, Ford’s older brother, however, whom Henry Ford picked as his successor, and he became president of Ford in 1945, later becoming chief executive and chairman.
In planning his succession after he was slowed by a heart ailment in 1976, Henry II expanded the office of chief executive, making William a member of the executive team. He also made him chairman of the board’s executive committee. But when it came to choose a chief executive to replace him in 1980, Henry II chose Philip Caldwell, the first person from outside the family named to run Ford. William’s consolation prize was becoming company vice chairman.
Owner of Detroit Lions
Ford bought control of the Lions in 1964 for $6 million, the largest cash price then paid for a sports team. (It included Lions assets like an office building and stocks and bonds valued at $1.5 million.) In 2013, Forbes magazine estimated the franchise’s value at $900 million.
Ford came under sharp criticism from Detroit leaders when, in 1975, he decided to abandon the city and move the Lions from Tiger Stadium in Detroit to the new Silverdome, in Pontiac, a Detroit suburb.
In 2002, William and his son, William Jr., who had become chairman of Ford and a top Lions’ executive, moved the team back to Detroit, to Ford Field, a newly built 65,000-seat indoor stadium.
William Clay Ford was born in Detroit on March 14, 1925, the youngest of the four children of Edsel Bryant Ford, Henry’s only son, and Eleanor Lowthian Clay, who had been raised by her uncle, J.L. Hudson, founder of Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit. The Ford family lived on an estate in what is now Grosse Pointe Shores.
Ford enlisted in the wartime Navy in 1943, and was in flight training at the time of his discharge two years later.
Ford enrolled at Yale and was captain of the soccer and tennis teams. While students, Ford and Martha Firestone married in Akron, Ohio, on June 21, 1947.
William’s brother Benson died in 1978 and his brother Henry II in 1987. His sister, Josephine Clay Ford, died in 2005.