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Former Ford exec McNamara dies

Mon, 06 Jul 2009

Robert S. McNamara, a former Ford Motor Co. president who later served as defense secretary during the Vietnam War, died in his sleep Monday at his home. He was 93.

McNamara--Berkeley- and Harvard-educated--joined Ford in 1946 as one of a group of 10 Whiz Kids. Henry Ford II hired those men, who had served together in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, to revive his grandfather's company, which had lost $85 million in eight months.

In 1955, he became general manager of the Ford Division, where he most famously introduced the four-seat Thunderbird. In 1957, when McNamara was promoted to vice president and group executive for cars and trucks, Ford outsold Chevrolet for the first time in 22 years.

In November 1960, McNamara began his one-month stint as Ford Motor's president. He was the first person outside the Ford family to hold that title since 1906. He resigned in December to serve as President John F. Kennedy's secretary of defense. He held the position until 1968, also having served under President Lyndon Johnson.

As a Ford executive, McNamara believed that statistical analysis and market research were more important than product. That motivated decisions such as introducing the four-seat Thunderbird, which McNamara said he didn't regret in a 2003 interview with Automotive News.

"The four-seat Thunderbird performed much better than the two-seat," he said. "And it made a profit for the company."

The two-seat Thunderbird was a money loser; its sales had dropped to 21,000 by the 1957 model year. In its first year as a four-passenger car, Thunderbird sales exceeded those from all its years as a two-seater. By 1960, Ford sold almost 100,000 four-seaters each year.

In the 2003 interview, McNamara said he also wanted to be remembered for introducing safety features in 1956 models, turning the industry's focus toward saving lives.

By Chrissie Thompson- Automotive News