William Clay Ford, the Continental Project, and the Quest for Excellence

On March 9th of this year (2014) one of the last remaining titans of the classic age of automobiles, William Clay Ford, passed. He was 88 years old. William was the last remaining grandson of Henry Ford and youngest child of Edsel Bryant Ford. During his long life he racked up a series of noteworthy accomplishments. He earned a BS in economics from Yale, served on Ford’s board of directors, and managed the Henry Ford Museum from 1952 to 1983. But he’s best known for his backing of the Mark II Continental project, which paid tribute to one of the most memorable cars in Detroit history.

William Clay Ford, the Continental Project, and the Quest for Excellence

A Masterpiece from a Bygone Era America was still reeling from the Great Depression when Edsel Ford decided to create a truly elegant automobile for his own personal use. In 1938 he commissioned Eugene T. "Bob" Gregorie, Ford’s design chief, to sketch out the concept. Gregorie reportedly did so in one hour, borrowing heavily from the Lincoln Zephyr for inspiration. The result was both refined and radically new for the time, with a convertible top, external spare tire cover, and exceptionally long hood that concealed a 292 ci (4.8-liter) V12. The lines were smooth and flowed nicely, and the profile was long and low, with chrome in just the right places. The best single-word description of the original Continental is “classy,” in the best sense of the term. PHOTOS: See More of the 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II 
William Clay Ford, the Continental Project, and the Quest for Excellence
Edsel took possession of his new toy in 1939, and in no time at all his rich buddies were howling for one of their own. So the Continental went into limited production, with an additional two dozen being built in 1939 and 400 the year after. Sadly, the entry of the US into WW2 in 1942 killed production. But by that time the Continental had gained a well-deserved name as one of the finest vehicles ever made. Rebirth of a Legend The early 1950s was a vastly different period of history than the late 1930s. America and her Allies had defeated Hitler and his henchmen. Ford had made enormous profits during the conflict, only to steer perilously close to bankruptcy in the latter half of the 1940s. By the early 1950s, however, the Dearborn-based automaker was once again vibrant and profitable. The Ford clan decided to celebrate the company’s 1953 Golden Anniversary by resurrecting the Continental, in an updated persona for the Space Age.  PHOTOS: See More of the 1966 Lincoln Continental Convertible
William Clay Ford, the Continental Project, and the Quest for Excellence
Conflict marked the development process from its first moments. Ford’s marketing division pushed for a gaudy, tacky, trendy hunk of chrome that embodied the worst of 1950s design. Had they gotten their way, the Mark II might have turned into another Edsel (the car, not the man). This is where William Clay comes into the picture. He was one of those who guarded the project against the profit-obsessed pariahs. He helped to guide the Mark II towards a look that captured everything the original Continental was about: timeless styling and devotion to craftsmanship.
William Clay Ford, the Continental Project, and the Quest for Excellence
Machining tolerances were especially tight, each engine was ruthlessly tested before installation, and a combination Y- and ladder-shaped frame made the Mark II resilient as well as refined. The final product was a worthy successor to the original vehicle, with just enough revisions to keep it from looking quaintly outdated. As many historians have pointed out, the Mark II was not a moneymaker. One drawback was the $10,000.00 price tag, about $87,000.00 in today’s money. Still, it’s not always about turning a profit, even in the world of big business. William Clay Ford understood this, and for that alone he richly deserves whatever accolades he may get. Rest in peace, good sir. PHOTOS: See More of the 1958 Lincoln Continental Convertible

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