NEW YORK — 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 of pneumonia at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Henry 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 Motor 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, Mr. Ford united two of America’s industrial dynasties. Ford Motor has bought millions of Firestone tires.
Mr. Ford was appointed to the Ford Motor 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.
However, it was Henry II, Mr. Ford’s older brother, whom Henry Ford picked as his successor. Henry II was known for his effective management and a jet-setting lifestyle. When The New York Times Magazine asked William Ford in 1969 about his brother’s cosmopolitan crowd, he allowed that they weren’t 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 to include William. He also made him chairman of the board’s executive committee. But when it came time 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 Ford’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 team. In 2010, Pro Football Weekly estimated the franchise’s value at $817 million.
Mr. Ford came under sharp criticism from Detroit leaders when, in 1975, he decided to abandon the city and move the Lions to a new stadium in Pontiac, a Detroit suburb.
In 2002, Mr. Ford and his son, William Jr., who had become a top Lions’ executive, moved the team back to Detroit, to Ford Field.
But the team, one of the oldest NFL 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.
Yet he was beloved by many of his players.
‘‘In so many NFL locker rooms, if the owner is around, players put their heads down and hope not to get noticed. In Detroit, I noticed right away that players would go up to him to say hello,’’ Johnnie Morton, a former receiver, told the Associated Press. “One time, I hollered, ‘Big Willie is in the house,’ when he walked in the locker room. ... Mr. Ford later came over and cracked up about it.’’
William Clay Ford was born in Detroit, the youngest of the four children of Edsel Bryant Ford 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.
He enlisted in the 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 her daughter, Martha. At first the two resisted their mothers’ matchmaking. But when he was transferred to California, they corresponded.
‘He had exquisite taste, and he knew when an idea was right.’John Reinhart, Lincoln Continental’s chief stylist, to Automobile Quarterly in 1974
Mr. Ford enrolled at Yale and was captain of the soccer and tennis teams. While students, Mr. Ford and Martha Firestone married in Akron, Ohio, on June 21, 1947.
Mr. Ford leaves 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.
His 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 1949 with a degree in economics. He worked in sales and advertising, then labor relations.
In 1957, Ford Motor introduced a new 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 Ford said.
In 1968, Mr. Ford astounded friends, businessmen, and politicians by publicly supporting Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He had backed Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican, four years earlier. Mr. Ford said he was moved by McCarthy’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
Mr. Ford was vice chairman of Ford from 1980 to 1989 and led its powerful finance committee from 1987 to 1995. After serving 56 years on the board, he retired in 2005. One of his last successes was helping to get his son, William, named Ford’s chairman in 2002.