Phil Caldwell, who died last week at 93, was a self-described non-car guy -- a planner and plodder to the core in an era of larger-than-life car executives. He came across as bland, yet the ex-Ford chairman goes down as one of the auto industry's all-time great risk-takers. He almost certainly saved Ford Motor Co. in the 1980s by fervently backing the first-generation Taurus -- a midmarket sedan with an eccentric shape that many inside Ford thought was a disaster waiting to happen.
"Betting the company" is an overused phrase in the industry, but Caldwell really did it -- and he won. It was the last act in a momentous auto career. He died at his home in New Canaan, Conn., his family said. The cause was complications of a stroke. 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 founder Henry Ford, then chose Caldwell as his successor, first as CEO in 1979 and as chairman the following year. He was "remarkably cool and resolute in a crisis," wrote Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White in their 1994 book, Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry. He "had enormous analytical skills and the determination to examine any problem from every conceivable angle," they wrote.
As president and then CEO, Caldwell presided over a turnaround. Ford endured almost $3.3 billion of losses during two U.S. recessions from 1980 through 1982, as well as questions over the design and safety of its Pinto model. "Philip Caldwell had a remarkable impact at Ford Motor Company over a span of more than 30 years," Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement.
"Serving as CEO and later as Chairman of the Board of Directors, he helped guide the company through a difficult turnaround in the 1980s and drove the introductions of ground-breaking products around the globe.”His dedication and relentless passion for quality always will be hallmarks of his legacy at Ford. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family."
During his rise within the company, Caldwell had impressed his bosses by helping introduce the popular Fiesta. On his watch as CEO, Ford invested $3 billion in the Taurus, which became the best-selling car in the United States.