Former Ford chief Philip Caldwell dies at 93


In a May 12, 1977 file photo, Ford Chairman Henry Ford II, center, and Philip Caldwell, vice chairman of the board, attend the company’s annual stockholders meeting. Cauldwell, the first person to lead Ford Motor Co. who wasn't a member of the founding family, died July 10, 2013. (Richard Sheinwald/AP)

Philip Caldwell, Ford Motor Co.’s first chief executive who wasn’t a member of the founder’s family and who gambled the automaker’s future on the Taurus sedan in the 1980s, died July 10 at his home in New Canaan, Conn. He was 93.

The cause was complications from a stroke, his family said.

Mr. Caldwell followed in the footsteps of more famous executives. He became president of Ford in 1978 after Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca. “Hank the Deuce,” grandson of founder Henry Ford, then chose Mr. Caldwell as his successor, first as chief executive in 1979 and as chairman the following year. His close relationship with Henry Ford II earned Mr. Caldwell the nickname “the Prince” inside the company.

He was “remarkably cool and resolute in a crisis,” wrote Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White in their 1994 book, “Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry.” He “had enormous analytical skills and the determination to examine any problem from every conceivable angle,” they wrote.

As president and then chief executive, Mr. Caldwell presided over a turnaround. Ford endured almost $3.3 billion of losses during two U.S. recessions from 1980 through 1982, as well as questions over the design and safety of its Pinto model.

During his rise within the company, Mr. Caldwell had impressed his bosses by helping introduce the popular Fiesta. On his watch as chief executive, Ford invested $3 billion on the aerodynamic Taurus, which became the best-selling car in the United States.

Mr. Caldwell unveiled the sedan in January 1985, just before he retired and was replaced as chief executive by Donald Petersen. The vehicle went on sale later that year as a 1986 model.

“Caldwell couldn’t stomach the thought of Petersen getting credit for the Taurus, a car developed mostly on Caldwell’s watch,” Ingrassia and White wrote. Ford previewed the car on Jan. 29, 1985, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in California with activities that included a dinner attended by celebrities Danny Thomas, Ethel Merman and Lynda Carter, according to the book.

Mr. Caldwell remained on Ford’s board until 1990. Upon the 1987 death of Henry Ford II, Mr. Caldwell, on behalf of the board, pressed 30-year-old William Clay Ford Jr., known as Bill, on whether he wanted to become custodian of his family’s interests and eventually lead the company that his great-grandfather started.

“Whether Bill had thought about it, whether he really wanted to be a serious player — that was something we wanted to know,” Mr. Caldwell said in a 2002 interview with Bloomberg Markets Magazine. Bill Ford served as chief executive from late 2001 until September 2006, when he became executive chairman.

Philip Caldwell was born Jan. 27, 1920, in Bourneville, Ohio. He graduated in 1940 from what is now Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, where he majored in economics and debated on a championship-winning team. He received an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1942, served on the staff of U.S. Adm. Chester Nimitz during World War II and joined Ford in 1953.

After working jobs in purchasing, engineering and manufacturing, he was named a manager in Ford’s truck product planning division in 1960 and general manager of truck operations in 1968, when he was also elected a vice president.

He was assigned to Ford’s Philco car-radio unit in Philadelphia and in 1973 became chief of Ford’s international operations. Among his achievements was the creation of the Fiesta, Ford’s first small car in Europe, in 1976.

A reorganization in April 1977 that elevated Mr. Caldwell to vice chairman intensified the feud between Iacocca, who remained president, and Henry Ford II.

“It was ridiculous that Caldwell, who used to work for me, was suddenly above me for no apparent reason except malice,” Iacocca wrote in his 1984 memoir.

Fourteen months later, in June 1978, Ford named his younger brother, William Clay Ford Sr., as chairman of the executive committee. Mr. Caldwell became deputy chief executive officer, with Iacocca reporting to him. The tense arrangement lasted a few weeks, until Iacocca departed. Mr. Caldwell then became president, succeeding Iacocca, who a few months later took charge at Chrysler.

The problems Mr. Caldwell inherited, the New York Times reported in November 1978, included the recall of 1.5 million pre-1977 Pinto subcompact sedans after court decisions ordered the company to pay damages for gasoline-tank fires caused by rear-end collisions. That didn’t stop Ford’s new president from talking up the company’s future.

“As strange as it may sound to you, all the data we have show that the quality of our products today is better than any of the other domestic producers,” Mr. Caldwell told the Times.

Survivors include his wife, the former Betsey Clark; three children; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

— Bloomberg News

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