(Corrects story published July 12 to delete reference to Ethel Merman in the seventh paragraph.)
Philip Caldwell, Ford Motor Co. (F:US)’s first chief executive officer who wasn’t a member of the founder’s family, and who gambled the automaker’s future on the Taurus sedan in the 1980s, has died. He was 93.
He died July 10 at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut, his family said in a statement provided by the company. The cause was complications of a stroke.
Caldwell followed in the footsteps of more famous executives. He became president of Ford in 1978 after Henry Ford II, grandson of founder Henry Ford, fired Lee Iacocca and chose Caldwell to lead the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker, first as CEO in 1979 and as chairman the following year. His close relationship with Henry Ford II earned Caldwell the nickname “The Prince” inside the company, according to a New York Times profile in 1979.
He was “remarkably cool and resolute in a crisis,” wrote Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White in their 1994 book, “Comeback: The Fall and 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 CEO, 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, Caldwell had impressed his bosses by helping introduce the popular Fiesta. On his watch as CEO, Ford invested $3 billion on the aerodynamic Taurus, which became the best-selling car in the U.S. Caldwell unveiled the sedan in January 1985, just before he retired and was replaced as CEO 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 and Linda Carter, according to the book.
Caldwell remained on Ford’s board (F:US) until 1990. Upon the 1987 death of Henry Ford II, Caldwell, on behalf of the board, pressed 30-year-old William Clay Ford Jr., known as Bill, 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,” Caldwell said in a 2002 interview with Bloomberg Markets magazine.
Bill Ford served as CEO from late 2001 until September 2006, when he became executive chairman. In a statement issued yesterday by the company, he said Caldwell “helped guide the company through a difficult turnaround in the 1980s and drove the introductions of ground-breaking products around the globe. His dedication and relentless passion for quality always will be hallmarks of his legacy at Ford.”
Philip Caldwell was born on Jan. 27, 1920, in Bourneville, Ohio, the youngest of four children of Wilhelmina Hemphill Caldwell and Robert Clyde Caldwell.
He graduated in 1940 from Muskingum College, now Muskingum University, in New Concord, Ohio, where he majored in economics and debated on a championship-winning team. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in Boston in 1942, served on the staff of U.S. Admiral 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 (F:US). Among his achievements was creation of the Fiesta, Ford’s first small car in Europe, in 1976.
A reorganization in April 1977 that elevated 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. Caldwell became deputy CEO, with Iacocca reporting to him. The tense arrangement lasted a few weeks, until Iacocca departed. Caldwell then became president, succeeding Iacocca, who a few months later took charge at Chrysler Corp.
The problems Caldwell inherited, the Times reported in November 1978, included the recall of 1.5 million pre-1977 Pinto subcompact sedans following court decisions ordering 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,” Caldwell told the Times.
With his wife of almost 68 years, the former Betsey C. Clark, Caldwell had three children: Lawrence C. Caldwell of New Canaan; Lucy Caldwell-Stair of Newton, Massachusetts; and Desiree Caldwell Armitage of Concord, Massachusetts.
He is also survived by six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
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