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 on Sunday at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Ford’s last surviving grandchild, he was 88.
Mr. Ford, who was also 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 the tire magnate Harvey Firestone, Mr. 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, Mr. 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. Nicknamed Hank the Deuce, Henry II was known for his effective management and a jet-setting lifestyle. When The New York Times Magazine asked William in 1969 about his brother’s cosmopolitan crowd, he allowed that they were not his “cup of tea.”
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 choosing a chief executive to replace him in 1980, Henry II picked Philip Caldwell, the first person from outside the family named to run Ford. William’s consolation prize was being named the company’s vice chairman.
Mr. 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.
Early in his ownership Mr. Ford feared that the season’s tickets would be looted during the Detroit race riots of 1967 and called Ford to ask for vans to move the tickets. An executive refused, saying no company driver would risk it, Peter Collier and David Horowitz recounted in their 1987 book, “The Fords: An American Epic.”
Mr. Ford recruited a janitor and a staff assistant he had hired, Dick Lane, who had been a star Lions defensive back nicknamed Night Train. The three did the job themselves.
Mr. 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.
But the team, one of the oldest N.F.L. franchises, has never gone to the Super Bowl, and in 2008 it lost all 16 games, an NFL record. Fans sharply criticized Mr. Ford and the team, and he could be stinging himself, calling his club “ragtag” in 1982 and “lousy” in 1989.
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 in an estate in what is now Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.
The first Henry Ford doted on young Billy and his two brothers, Henry II and Benson, taking them on camping trips. When Billy was a teenager, a police officer stopped him and his grandfather for “driving like a bat out of hell,” in William’s recollection. Neither had a license. The officer called Clara, the elder Henry’s wife, who promised to handle the matter, according to “The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century” (2005) by Steven Watts.
When they got home, she was waiting. “Billy, you go to your bedroom,” Mrs. Ford said sternly. “And Henry, I want to talk to you.”
Mr. Ford went to the private Detroit University School, later incorporated into the University Liggett School, in Grosse Pointe Woods, and progressed to the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. He enlisted in the wartime Navy in 1943, and was in flight training at the time of his discharge two years later.
While he was stationed in New York, his mother visited him and arranged a lunch with her old friend Isabel Firestone and Ms. Firestone’s daughter, Martha, a student at Vassar. At first the two resisted their mothers’ matchmaking. But when Mr. Ford was transferred to California, they secretly corresponded.
Mr. Ford enrolled at Yale and was captain of the soccer and tennis teams. While students, Mr. Ford and Miss Firestone married in Akron, Ohio, on June 21, 1947. A Model T from 1908, the year Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone met, was parked in front of the hotel where the reception was held. Edisons and Rockefellers attended.
Mr. Ford is survived by his wife and son as well as his daughters Martha Ford Morse, Sheila Ford Hamp and Elizabeth Ford Kontulis; 14 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
William’s brother Benson died in 1978 and his brother Henry II in 1987. His sister, Josephine Clay Ford, died in 2005.
Mr. Ford worked on the Ford assembly line during summer vacations from college. He never considered not working at Ford when he graduated in 1948 with a degree in economics. He worked in sales and advertising, then industrial relations, where he helped negotiate a contract with the United Auto Workers.
In 1957, Ford introduced a midsize car with much hoopla. It was named the Edsel, after Henry Ford’s only child. It sold poorly, and production ended in 1959. “You’re always sensitive when your father’s name becomes a synonym for failure,” William said.
In 1968, Mr. Ford astounded friends, business executives and politicians by publicly supporting Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He backed Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican, four years earlier. Mr. Ford said he was moved by Mr. McCarthy’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
Mr. Ford was vice chairman of Ford from 1980 to 1989, and led Ford’s powerful finance committee from 1987 to 1995. After serving nearly 57 years on the board, he retired in 2005. One of his last successes was helping to get his son, William Jr., named Ford’s chairman in 2002.
Mr. Ford drew psychic nourishment from a long-ago triumph, he recalled in the book “The Fords.” He remembered winning an athletic competition over hundreds of other Navy cadets.
“Without anyone knowing my name or who I was or whether I had a dime,” he said, “I did it on my own.”
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