I once described Ford CEO Philip Caldwell as “colorless” in a WardsAuto World magazine article. His wife, Betsey, let me know her thoughts in an irate phone call.
I used that term in comparing Caldwell to more flamboyant automotive executives of the time, such as Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II, who was the epitome of “colorful” in the 1970s, and not always in a good way.
Caldwell was a farm boy who grew up in southeastern Ohio. A teetotaler and non-smoker, the term “no nonsense” seemed eminently apropos. He won the top job at Ford over Iacocca in 1979, becoming the first-ever CEO who was not a member of the Ford family.
Caldwell died recently at age 93. I interviewed him many times, and on one occasion we even appeared together on a TV news show in New York.
Over the years I found him to be likeable but extremely reserved, allowing nearly zero time for small talk. However we did chat about his service as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II, of which he was very proud.
Caldwell’s naval experience led to a famous new-car press launch in 1983 that took place on the Intrepid aircraft carrier, a floating museum on the Hudson River in New York City. Two new compacts, the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz, were introduced. To the chagrin of many, reporters were allowed to test drive the cars on the flattop’s flight deck. Public relations officials held their breath and hoped no lead foot drove into the wild blue yonder.
Like most executives with finance credentials, the Harvard MBA was a stickler for metrics and details. But Caldwell, the conservative bean counter, made one of the biggest gambles in Ford history.
When he took charge, Ford’s products had been mired in mediocrity and poor quality for years. High on his priority list was a $3 billion program for an all-new midsize car unlike any other on the market: The Ford Taurus.
Introduced in 1985, the car's aerodynamic styling was revolutionary for a mainstream family sedan and initially mocked as being shaped like a jelly bean. But Americans fell in love with the sleek lines, and the Taurus and its Mercury Sable sibling together went on to become the best-selling Ford cars ever, with first-year deliveries exceeding 400,000.
Caldwell’s gamble paid off handsomely, and the Taurus has become one of Ford’s best-known and most enduring brands. For that and more he’ll be remembered as a CEO who added long-term sustainability to the often up-and-down fortunes of the Ford Motor Co.