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Philip Caldwell obituary: Executive who restored Ford's global standing

'It was ridiculous that Caldwell was suddenly above me,' a resentful Lee Iacocca recalled

Philip Caldwell became Ford’s first chief executive officer who was not a member of the founder’s family and went on to gamble the car manufacturer’s future on the Taurus sedan in the 1980s.

Caldwell followed in the footsteps of more famous executives. He became president of Ford in 1978 after Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca. “Hank the Deuce,” grandson of the company’s founder Henry Ford, chose Caldwell as his successor, 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.

In their 1994 book Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B White wrote that Caldwell was “remarkably cool and resolute in a crisis”, adding that “He “had enormous analytical skills and the determination to examine any problem from every conceivable angle.” Caldwell presided over a much-needed turnaround in the firm’s fortunes following nearly $3.3 billion of losses during two US recessions from 1980 until 1982, as well as questions over the design and safety of the Ford Pinto.

Caldwell was born in 1920 in Ohio. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1942, served on the staff of Admiral Chester Nimitz during the Second World War and joined Ford in 1953.

After working in purchasing, engineering and manufacturing, he became 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 international operations. Among his achievements was the Fiesta, Ford’s first small car in Europe, in 1976.

A reorganisation 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 only a few weeks, until Iacocca departed. Caldwell succeeded him as president, while a few months later Iacocca took charge at Chrysler.

The problems Caldwell inherited included the recall of 1.5 million pre-1977 Pinto sedans following court decisions ordering the company to pay damages for petrol-tank fires caused by rear-end collisions. That did not 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 said.

Caldwell had impressed his bosses by helping introduce the popular Fiesta, and Ford invested $3 billion in the aerodynamic Taurus. He unveiled the sedan just before he retired and was replaced as CEO by Donald Petersen. Ford previewed the car on in January 1985, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in California with festivities that included a dinner attended by celebrities like Ethel Merman and Wonder Woman Linda Carter. “Caldwell couldn’t stomach the thought of Petersen getting credit for the Taurus, a car developed mostly on Caldwell’s watch,” wrote Ingrassia and White. The Taurus became the best-selling car in the US.

Philip Caldwell, business executive: born Bourneville, Ohio 27 January 1920; married Betsey (two daughters, one son); died 10 July 2013.