November 9, 1960: Robert McNamara becomes president of Ford Motor Company just one day after John F. Kennedy is elected President of the United States.
He may have only held automotive office for a handful of weeks before becoming JFK’s Secretary of Defense, but McNamara’s legacy at Ford is everlasting. However, after saving the company from its own ill-planned and cannibalistic Edsel division, he later created an Edsel of his own in the Vietnam War.
Following World War II, Ford desperately needed new blood and fresh ideas. The company had survived the Great Depression and “The Big One” but had fallen on harder times than General Motors or Chrysler. After Henry Ford handed the reigns over to his grandson, Henry Ford II, his first act was to hire a batch of “Whiz Kids” that were supposed to turn the company around. In reality, these kids were ten adult United States Army Air Force veterans who made up part of a then cutting-edge management science operation during the war.
McNamara, Whiz Kid and legitimate numbers geek, helped to streamline Ford and make it profitable again. The strategy included restructuring the company itself and modernizing its stodgy vehicles.
Ford’s model of 1949 signaled the beginning of a new “modern look”, with completely integrated rear fenders and a unique grille. It also heralded better times for the company. However, by 1957 a marketing disaster loomed in the form of the Edsel division. Costing Ford a fortune, Edsel suffered from consumer animosity due to its controversial styling and unclear place in the market. Slotted ridiculously close to the Mercury range in price, consumers couldn’t tell if an Edsel was supposed to be a premium Ford or a budget Lincoln.
McNamara not-so-secretly hated the idea and had already opposed the development of separate divisions for Lincoln, Mercury, and Edsel. He also saw to it that the Continental model was adopted by Lincoln and not spun off as its own brand. By 1958, McNamara had ensured that subsequent Edsel cars would share their body shells with Ford and, by 1959, he went to work on reducing Edsel’s advertising budget to virtually nothing. All throughout Edsel’s calculated destruction, McNamara was pushing his own agenda for a small, uncomplicated and inexpensive-to-produce vehicle. The little car, named the Falcon, emerged as an immediate sales success for Ford.
On November 9, 1960, McNamara became the first president of Ford Motor Company from outside the Ford family. However, his time in the big office would be short lived. One day prior, John F. Kennedy had been selected as the 35th U.S. President and he needed a Secretary of Defense. While he initially offered the role to former secretary Robert A. Lovett, Lovett declined and suggested McNamara.
Sometimes fate is cruel. For as good as McNamara was with logistics and planning, he would be remembered forever as the engineer of America’s most disastrous military entanglement. In his 1995 memoir In Retrospect, he said of the Vietnam War, “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”
When the war ground to a bloody halt, 58,000 Americans had lost their lives and the nation had changed forever.
Serving under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, McNamara oversaw hundreds of military actions and billions of dollars in military spending. He played a direct role in facilitating diplomacy on foreign soil and decided how the U.S. government should involve itself in handling the civil rights movement on its own soil.
It’s safe to say that McNamara was easily the most powerful car guy in history.
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