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Henry Ford II Dies; Led Auto Firm 35 Years

September 30, 1987|TED THACKREY Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Auto magnate Henry Ford II, who for 35 years ran the automobile company founded by his grandfather, managing it from the brink of disaster to the top rank of industrial power, died Tuesday in a Detroit hospital.

Ford, 70, who had a history of heart problems, was admitted to Cottage Hospital in suburban Grosse Pointe Farms on Sept. 9 for treatment of pneumonia he contracted while living at his country estate outside London.

He was transferred Sept. 12 to Henry Ford Hospital, the institution founded by his grandfather, where he was placed on a respirator in the intensive care unit. He received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church on Sept. 18.

Family at Hospital

His wife, Kathleen DuRoss Ford; daughters, Charlotte Ford Downe and Anne Ford Scarborough, and son, Ford Motors executive Edsel Bryant Ford II, moved into the hospital to be with him, but doctors said he never fully regained consciousness.

He was an inheritor and he was a tycoon--representative of a family dynasty and living symbol of the modern industrial age.

His grandfather, the first Henry Ford, was already an industrial icon when Henry II was born.

The elder Ford was the man who had put America on wheels while turning the Ford Motor Co. into an industrial giant that was in its heyday unrivaled throughout the world. But that heyday was long past when young Henry took over in 1945.

Grandfather Henry had continued at the helm too long. He was senile, the company was on the brink of financial collapse and no one could have blamed the young man--who had only two years of junior executive experience behind him--for deciding the situation was hopeless.

"He could have opted out," biographer Anton Walczak wrote in 1966. "No one would have been surprised if he had chosen to liquidate, cash in whatever assets remained for what they would bring in order to safeguard his family's financial future without regarding the cost to others whose lives were bound up in the company."

Instead, he set himself and those around him to modernize the company almost overnight. He reversed its fortunes in the first year of his stewardship while continuing to rule Ford like the family fiefdom it was. He returned the company almost to its original position of dominance.

"I had to," he said. "My name is on the building. . . . "

Yet he remained an enigma--and a paradox.

- He was the liberal who spoke in behalf of social causes, led the revitalization of downtown Detroit and supported Democrats for President.

- He was the conservative who resigned from the board of the family-created Ford Foundation because he found it too liberal for his taste.

- He was the trend-setter whose Thunderbird, Falcon and Mustang were hailed.

- He was the trend-resister whose Edsel entered the language as a synonym for failure, whose Pinto was denounced as a murderous firetrap and who summed up his attitude toward compact cars in the single sentence: "Mini-cars mean mini-profits."

- He was the dutiful scion who abandoned personal interests and ambitions to work 14-hour days in a threatening and unfamiliar milieu, mending the family fortunes.

- He was the international playboy who did as he liked, starring in the jet set gossip columns and making headlines as master of revels at famous watering holes in the Bahamas, Mexico and the Riviera.

"Never complain, never explain," he said when questioned about a 1975 peccadillo.

It was, in many respects, his life theme.

Born Sept. 4, 1917, in Detroit, he was the eldest son of Edsel B. and Eleanor Clay Ford, and no one then or later ever doubted that he was the crown prince of the burgeoning Ford empire. But the years of his childhood coincided almost precisely with those of the company's decline.

His father became president of the Ford Motor Co. in 1919. But it was a hollow title. Founder Henry Ford still held more than half the company stock in his own name, and no one else was allowed to make a decision--least of all the founder's gentle and unassertive son.

At Yale University, where he was enrolled in 1936, he devoted more attention to such extracurricular activities as Zeta Psi fraternity, the Book and Snake Club and management of the Yale crew than to studies.

Henry II began college as an engineering student (a courtesy nod in the direction of his expected future role with Ford Motor Co.) but quickly switched to sociology and left without graduating in 1940 when a receipt carelessly left attached to his senior thesis when he turned it in betrayed the fact that it had been ghostwritten for him.

(In 1969, when he returned to Yale to speak, he looked up from his text and said with a grin: "I didn't write this either.")

By the time he left school, he had already been a director of the company for two years. But when he returned to Detroit, it was to take a job as a grease monkey at the River Rouge plant--and to make society page headlines with his marriage to Anne McDonnell.

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