William Clay Ford, the owner of the Detroit Lions and the last surviving grandchild of automotive industrialist Henry Ford, died March 9 at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. He was 88.
Ford Motor Co. announced the death and said the cause was pneumonia.
Mr. Ford helped steer the family business for more than five decades as an employee and board member of the automaker for more than half of its 100-year history. His son, William Clay Ford Jr., is executive chairman of Ford.
The elder Ford also bought the NFL franchise in the Motor City a half-century ago. His 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 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.
William Clay Ford — the youngest of Edsel B. Ford’s four children — was born into an automotive fortune in 1925 bearing what was already a household name. His grandfather taught him to drive at age 10, and he was taken for his first airplane ride in a Ford Tri-Motor by transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh.
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.
He spearheaded the design, development and introduction of the Continental Mark II in 1956. He was elected a Ford vice chairman in 1980 and retired with that title in 1989. Mr. Ford remained a company director until 2005, later taking the title of director emeritus.
He helped institutionalize the practice of professional management atop the company that began with the naming of Philip Caldwell as Ford chief executive 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 chief executive Jacques Nasser in favor of William Clay Ford Jr.
But while each of the Motor City’s other three professional franchises — the Red Wings, Pistons and Tigers — won at least one championship, the Lions were synonymous with losing under Mr. Ford.
He seemed to lead the Lions with a light touch, leaving most decisions up to administrators such as Russ Thomas, Chuck Schmidt, Matt Millen and current general manager Martin Mayhew.
Mr. Ford moved the club from Tiger Stadium in Detroit to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975 before bringing his team back downtown.
Ford Field — a 65,000-seat, $315 million indoor stadium — opened in 2002. Coupled with a state-of-the-art team headquarters in nearby Allen Park, it gave the Lions the best facilities money could buy.
But a blueprint for consistently winning was elusive. From Mr. Ford’s first season as team owner to his last, the Lions won 310 games, lost 441 and tied 13.
Mr. Ford was married to the former Martha Parke Firestone, an heiress to the Akron, Ohio, rubber fortune. Her grandfather Harvey Firestone was a close friend of Henry Ford’s. They had three daughters, a son, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.