A Historical Note: Ford General Managers

As I’ve said before, one of the things you notice when you do a lot of research in a particular field is that certain pieces of information are repeated over and over again even though they’re wrong. I’ve made those mistakes myself — some times that I know about and probably others I have yet to discover — so I can’t claim any particular moral high ground here, but when I recognize one of these errors, I try to rectify it as best I can.

One common misconception I’ve noticed recently regards Ford in the late fifties and early sixties and the careers of Robert McNamara and Lee Iacocca. Let’s see if we can set it straight:

VICE PRESIDENTS AND FORD GENERAL MANAGERS

As many readers are probably aware, in November 1960, Robert S. McNamara was named president of the Ford Motor Company, a role he ultimately held for less than two weeks. At around the same time, Lee Iacocca was promoted to vice president and Ford general manager. That’s all true; however, because McNamara was a past general manager of Ford Division and those promotions occurred more or less concurrently, some authors (including me, to my chagrin) have implied or even stated outright that Iacocca replaced McNamara at Ford, which is incorrect.

McNamara became general manager of Ford Division in January 1955, succeeding the division’s first general manager, Lewis D. Crusoe. McNamara remained in that role for only about two years. In the spring of 1957, he was promoted to group vice president of the Car and Truck Group, a position he held until assuming the presidency in the fall of 1960. As group VP, McNamara oversaw Ford, Mercury, Edsel, and Lincoln, but did not directly manage any of those divisions; the division managers reported to him.

McNamara’s immediate successor as head of Ford Division was not Iacocca, then in Ford’s marketing department, but James O. Wright, another of the original Whiz Kids. Wright had previously been McNamara’s assistant general manager and before that director of purchasing.

The reasons for the confusion aren’t difficult to see: Both McNamara and Iacocca are obviously far better known than Wright and McNamara’s influence on Ford product decisions in this period is well-documented. Both of the two most significant and memorable new Ford models of Wright’s tenure, the 1958 Ford Thunderbird and the 1960 Ford Falcon, were very much McNamara’s projects and the Thunderbird was developed and approved while McNamara was still general manager. (Lead times being what they are, it’s not uncommon for an automotive general manager to spend most of his or her tenure producing and selling cars designed by his or her predecessor(s).)

After McNamara became president, Wright took his place as group VP and Iacocca succeeded Wright at Ford Division. As of this writing, I don’t have a lot of detailed information on Wright’s career, but according to contemporary press notices, he left Ford Motor Company and the auto industry in 1963, doing a stint as a consultant for Litton Industries (which was founded by fellow Whiz Kid Charles Bates “Tex” Thornton) and then becoming president of Federal-Mogul Bower, an automotive and aerospace supplier.

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  1. Aaron,you should be attached to the Library of Congress and funded as the researcher of record regarding the automobile industry. As Butch said to Sundance, “Where do you get this stuff”?

  2. Dave,

    If there’s a moral to this story, it’s the importance of widening one’s perspective. For example, confusion about McNamara’s role is considerably less common in sources focusing on Lincoln, Mercury and Edsel than in books on Ford, for obvious reasons: If McNamara had still been running Ford Division, he wouldn’t have had any say on the future of Lincoln or Edsel. Some of those sources incorrectly assume that McNamara was already president, which is an easy assertion to disprove. McNamara’s promotion to president in November 1960 was news throughout the business world at the time and articles about it mention his previous title; from there, it was just a matter of figuring out when he was promoted.

    One of the simplest ways to figure out who was general manager in a particular period was to look up press releases on new model releases or model changes, which usually include quotes from the general manager. The quotes themselves are usually pretty light on content, but then you have a name to investigate further.

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