William Clay Ford, who passed away on March 9, 2014, is remembered for his generous philanthropy, his dedication to the city of Detroit, and his long-time ownership of the Detroit Lions. They are important legacies that will continue to benefit and inspire for years to come. Automotive industry leaders, historians and enthusiasts point to another of Mr. Ford’s lasting contributions: the 1956 Continental Mark II.
While his brothers Henry II and Benson – especially Henry II – made their marks in Ford Motor Company’s business offices, William Clay Ford inherited his father Edsel Ford’s passion for automotive styling, as well as his consummate good taste. Fittingly, the younger Ford’s most important automobile project was a revival of Edsel’s much-admired Lincoln Continental of 1939 to 1948. The revival car, built and sold under a separate Continental Division, not only measured up to the original Continental’s legend, but became a classic in its own right.
At just thirty years of age, William Clay Ford headed a team of stylists and engineers who worked around the clock to design a car of rare style and luxury. The resulting Continental Mark II, with its clean lines and understated trim, stood in stark contrast with the chrome confections typical of the 1950s. Build quality was of the highest order. Suppliers’ parts were checked and re-checked, and factory components were tested and re-tested. Each car was essentially hand-built, and workers were encouraged to report even the slightest defect so that problems could be corrected before a car ever left the factory.
Power came from a 368-cubic inch Lincoln V-8 capable of 300 horsepower. The car was appointed with every available convenience. Automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes and power windows were all standard equipment. Air conditioning was the only optional extra. Quality and luxury, of course, came at a cost. The Continental Mark II debuted with a price tag of $10,000 – more than twice the cost of a conventional Lincoln. The car quickly became a status symbol among business and entertainment elites. Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor were proud owners, as was Elvis Presley – despite his penchant for Cadillacs.
Ford Motor Company never intended the Mark II to be a mainstream success. Instead, it was a “halo car” that sprinkled a touch of status over the automaker’s entire line. Even with that imposing price tag, Ford undoubtedly lost money on each Mark II it sold. But the company was willing to take the loss in return for the prestige and publicity the car generated. That mindset changed swiftly when Ford became a publicly-traded company in 1956. The limited-market Continental Mark II was no longer sustainable, and production ceased after just 3,000 cars over two model years.
Today the Continental Mark II is regarded as one of the most elegant American automobiles ever built. Some 1,500 examples survive, and bidding is intense whenever one comes up for auction. Mark II owners and fans keep the car’s spirit alive through clubs and car shows, and car magazines regularly include it in their “best ever” lists. It’s an enduring testament to William Clay Ford’s contributions to the automobile industry.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
William Clay Ford, grandson of Henry Ford, was the longest standing Chairman of the Board of The Henry Ford. He held the position for 38 years from 1951-1989. Through his vision and leadership, the institution, founded in 1929 by his grandfather, began its transformative evolution to the premier American history destination that it is today.
Mr. Ford recognized the national significance of The Henry Ford, its unparalleled collections and educational importance and he was committed throughout his life to the ongoing health and vitality of the institution.
As the largest donor in the history of the institution, his generosity helped restore Greenfield Village and build new visitor experiences in Henry Ford Museum, most notably, "With Liberty and Justice for All" and "Driving America," the country’s most significant automotive exhibition. During his tenure as Chairman of our Board from 1951 to 1989, he influenced the addition of many visitor amenities and collecting initiatives including programs such as Old Car Festival, Motor Muster and Hallowe'en in Greenfield Village, the acquisitions of John F. Kennedy’s Limousine, Firestone Farm, the Allegheny and the DC3 and the building of Greenfield Village’s railroad to name just a few.
In recognition and honor of Mr. Ford’s many contributions, the museum hall was named the William Clay Ford Hall of American Innovation.
At the time of his passing, Mr. Ford was Chair Emeritus, serving The Henry Ford for a total of 63 years. In recent years, he visited the institution often and enjoyed touring the archives, the Village and museum exhibitions.
Recently, when recounting his memories of The Henry Ford, Mr. Ford simply said, “I was brought up with it.” He spoke fondly of roller skating and riding bicycles on the floor of Henry Ford Museum and spending time with his grandparents Henry and Clara Ford in Greenfield Village as a child.
We are deeply saddened by this loss and grateful for Mr. Ford’s lifelong dedication and commitment to The Henry Ford. He will be greatly missed.
We encourage you to take a moment and share your thoughts or memories honoring Mr. Ford’s legacy. Visit our online collections to see more images of Mr. Ford.
The collections of The Henry Ford contain not only much of the history of the Ford Motor Company and Henry and Clara Ford, but also records related to Henry’s son, Edsel, as well as Edsel’s children. We’ve just digitized a number of photographs of one of Henry’s grandchildren, William Clay Ford, Sr. Before he retired from Ford Motor Company in 1989, William Clay Ford was involved in many capacities with the company his grandfather founded, and also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Edison Institute (e.g., The Henry Ford) for nearly 40 years, plus 25 years as our Chairman Emeritus. In addition, he has also had a controlling interest in the Detroit Lions NFL football team for the past 50 years. In this photo, young William walks among moss-covered trees at Richmond Hill, Georgia, with his grandmother, Clara. See more images and objects related to William Clay Ford, Sr., in our online collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.