Bill Ford Sr., left, ushered in the modern age at the automaker launched by his grandfather. Son Bill Ford Jr. is chairman.
Retiring patriarch molded Ford
Since 1948, William Clay Ford Sr. has guided the family firm into a global power.
By Bill Vlasic / The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co.
Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Co., taught grandson William Clay Ford Sr. to drive a Model A when he was 9 years old.
William Clay Ford Sr.
1925: Born in Detroit, the youngest of four children to Edsel B. Ford, and grandson of Henry Ford.
1943: Enlists in the U. S. Navy after attending University School and Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. He is discharged as an aviation cadet in 1945.
1947: Marries Martha Parke Firestone.
1948: Joins the board of directors of Ford Motor Co. while a student at Yale University.
1953: Elected by the board as a vice president of the company. His brother, Henry II, is president.
1954: Directs a $20 million project on the Continental Mark II. He calls it his proudest moment with the company. His father had designed the first Continental.
1955: Elected to Ford's executive committee
1963: Purchases the Detroit Lions football team for $6 million.
1980: Elected vice chairman of Ford, retiring from that position in 1989.
1987: Takes over as chairman of the Ford finance committee, a position he holds until he hands it over to his son, William Clay Ford Jr. in 1995.
1999: Bill Ford Jr. becomes chairman of Ford.
2001: Ford Sr. helps bring the company back under his family's control when the board ousts former CEO Jacques Nasser in favor of Bill Ford Jr.
2005: Retires as a Ford director after nearly 57 years with the company. He will become a director emeritus at the board's request.
William Clay Ford Sr., a scion of Ford Motor Co.'s founding family whose automotive career spanned seven decades, said Wednesday that he will retire from Ford's board of directors at the company's annual meeting in May.
A Ford director since 1948 and the board's vice chairman during the 1980s, Bill Ford Sr. has been a pivotal figure in Ford's corporate history and a quietly effective patriarch of America's first family of auto manufacturing.
His retirement marks the passing of an era at Ford, during which the company was transformed from a family-held business built by his grandfather, Henry Ford, into a global automotive giant now headed by his son, Bill Ford Jr.
"Bill is really the last of the dynasty," said Leon LaBrecque, a Southfield attorney and longtime adviser to the Ford family. "He goes back to the days before Ford went public and it was still a family-owned company."
Bill Ford Sr., who turns 80 on Monday, told the board Wednesday of his decision not to seek another term as director.
"Leaving the board will relieve me of formal duties and give me more flexibility," said the owner of the Lions in a prepared statement.
"But I still expect to spend as much time as possible with the extended family of Ford people and will gladly help the company and the board in any way I can."
His son, Ford's chairman, called his father's decision a "bittersweet moment" for himself and the company.
"My father helped lead Ford into the modern era and make us who we are," said Bill Ford Jr.
The retirement of Bill Ford Sr. will leave two family members serving on the Ford board -- Bill Jr. and his cousin, former Ford executive Edsel B. Ford II.
While he was more often seen at home games of his Detroit Lions football team than at Ford events in recent years, Bill Ford Sr. wielded enormous influence behind the scenes at the company.
He was instrumental in the board's decision in 2001 to fire Ford's then-chief executive, Jacques Nasser, and to turn the reins of the company over to Bill Ford Jr.
Moreover, Bill Ford Sr. is still Ford's largest individual stockholder and owner of 21 percent of the powerful Class B shares held solely by members of the Ford extended family.
While his oldest brother, Henry Ford II, was tapped to lead Ford back to prominence as its chairman in the post-World War II era, Bill Ford Sr. made his mark in a variety of executive positions and board assignments over the years.
He is perhaps best known as the chief of Ford's product planning and design in the 1950s, when he led the development of the Continental Mark II luxury sedan.
In 1978, he was elected chairman of the board's executive committee, and two years later was named vice chairman. Upon Henry Ford II's death in 1987, he took over as head of the board's powerful finance committee.
But he never took the top job at the company, preferring to act as a senior adviser to a series of non-family members who served as Ford's chairman and CEO.
"Bill was the kind of person who didn't really need to be elevated in people's eyes," said Ted Mecke, who retired as head of Ford communications in 1980. "He certainly could have been chairman, but I don't think that ever occurred to him."
His influence was never greater than in October 2001, when he supported the board's decision to fire the embattled Nasser and give his son, Chairman Bill Ford Jr., the chief executive position.
The move cemented the Ford family's control of the automaker for another generation to come and kept alive the historic lineage begun in 1902 by Henry Ford.
"The legacy continues on because of Bill Sr.," LaBrecque said. "That's why in Detroit we call it 'Ford's,' because we personify the company in the family."
And the company has had few more effective ambassadors than Bill Ford Sr., whose gentle and dignified manner endeared him to employees, dealers, shareholders and suppliers.
"He is one of the nicest men God has ever made," said Martin "Hoot" McInerney, a longtime friend and Ford dealer. "I would find it hard to find anybody who could say a disparaging word about Mr. William Clay Ford."
Born in 1925, Bill Ford Sr. was the baby of the Ford clan, the youngest of the four children of Henry Ford's only son, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor.
After graduating from Yale University in 1949, Bill Ford Sr. joined Ford and showed an early aptitude for design and product planning.
He also made a splash in the society pages when he married Martha Firestone, the granddaughter of tire magnate and Henry Ford pal Harvey Firestone.
Much has been written about how Henry Ford II overshadowed his younger brothers, Bill Sr. and Benson. Several published Ford histories contend that Bill Ford Sr. became disillusioned with corporate life when his Continental Division was folded into Lincoln-Mercury in the late 1950s.
But he remained active in design at Ford for decades, serving as chairman of the company's design committee from its formation in 1957 until he retired from Ford as an executive in 1989.
Since the death of Henry II, Bill Ford Sr. has been the leader of the extended Ford family along with his sister, Josephine. The fourth sibling, Benson, died in 1978.
Above all, Bill Ford Sr. is credited with providing a steadying influence at Ford during the tough economic times in the late 1980s and when Ford's fortunes nosedived during the Nasser years.
"He has made innumerable contributions to the company and its shareholders during 57 years," said Ford director Carl Reichardt, a board member since 1986. "The board is gratified that he will remain available to us during these challenging times."
Ford spokesman Oscar Suris said there are no plans to replace Bill Ford Sr. on the Ford board, which will number 15 directors upon his retirement.
Of course, replacing Bill Ford Sr. is hardly possible, said his nephew, Edsel Ford II.
"For as long as I've been alive, my uncle has been a part of this company," he said Wednesday. "He leaves behind a lasting legacy, one that I and the rest of my family will always be proud of."
While Bill Ford Sr. will likely devote more time in the future to the Lions, which he has owned since 1963, he won't ever be far from the action at Ford's Glass House headquarters.
"The Ford Motor Co. has always been part of my life," he said. "And I will continue to draw a lot of energy from this wonderful and exciting business."