By on November 9, 2016


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.


Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

15 Comments on “On This Day: Two Presidents Embark on a Collision Course...”

  • avatar
    Old Man Pants (nee Kenmore)

    Phuq, I love B&W photojourno!

    The McNamara is probably from a 4X5 Speed Graphic at the end of its era. You can see what killed that era in the background, a Pentax Spotmatic.

  • avatar

    Surprised “The Fog of War” wasnt mentioned. Must see viewing.

    McNamara is one of the most influential and greatest Americans who ever lived.

    People forget his contribution to WW2. An incredible mind.

  • avatar

    Was it Mc’s policies that got leaked out by Daniel Ellsberg and sent tricky dick down the path to ruin?

    • 0 avatar

      It wasn’t the Pentagon Papers that sent Nixon down the path to ruin. It was his paranoia, driven by misinformation fed to his brother, Don, that DNC chairman Larry O’ Brien was in possession of evidence of illicit dealings with billionaire Howard Hughes that would destroy his chances of being reelected in 1972. Historians believe this is what led Nixon to sanction the break-in of the Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex.

      If anything, the Pentagon Papers was just more kindling for the fire after the public learned of Nixon’s underhanded attempts to discredit Ellsberg for revenge.

      • 0 avatar

        Nixon never sanctioned the Watergate break-in. He read about it in the Miami Herald on June 18, 1972. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff, ended up coming clean and telling Nixon what had happened and who in their organization planned it. It is true that Nixon’s paranoia drove his staff to plan & execute the break-in but Nixon did not authorize it or know about it in advance. Read Evan Thomas’ excellent, “Being Nixon”, (Penguin Random House, 2015); highly detailed accounting of the entire debacle.

        Nixon crashed and burned because he knowingly tried to cover up the break-in and lied about it. Barry Goldwater, former Arizona Senator, visited Nixon in early August and told him that he (Nixon) would be impeached and there would be no stopping it and if he were impeached, he’d be removed from office. Resigning seemed to be the only viable course of action and that’s what Nixon did on August 9, 1974.

        So where is the car tie-in? I worked for a Chevrolet dealership in 1974 and was test driving a customer’s ’74 Impala hardtop that had driveability issues as Nixon’s resignation speech came over the radio. I pulled the car over and sat there transfixed listening to it.

  • avatar

    This has nothing to do with the story but some of you may find this interesting. Back in ’06, my wife and I purchased an ’05 Lincoln LS. while digging thru the owners manual packet I found the window sticker.

    In the space that listed the purchasing dealer, it simply stated: Ordered By Robert McNamara

    It could have been ordered by Elvis and it’s depreciation would have been still thru the floor.

    That is all.

  • avatar

    JFK appointed McNamara – a Republican – in 1961. In 1967 Mac lost the confidence of LBJ when he sent a memo to the prez advocating a troop freeze, ending bombing and essentially what later became known as “Vietnamization” – positions opposed by LBJ’s and his JT Chiefs. LBJ never responded to the memo and according to some historians, like Caro, LBJ thought Mac had gone nuts and was a huge political problem – Mac was still a Republican and 1966 had been a terrible year for the Dems electorally.

    Same said LBJ offered Mac the prez of the World Bank to ease him out w/o the public rancor of dismissing him which would have further undermined LBJ’s increasingly unpopular strategy and – most importantly – his planned re-election in 1968.

    Mac became a Dem in 1978, while head of the World Bank and just before the Dems imploded.

  • avatar

    Nixon brought in the plumbers to fix leaks like Ellsberg and it spiraled out of control. That was Johnson/Mc era stuff that got out.

Read all comments

Recent Comments

  • Jeff S: Again if you have children then why should I care especially if you don’t care about your children and...
  • crtfour: Wow a column shifter, fender skirts, landau top and drum brakes. Compare this garbage to what...
  • JMII: I used Herculiner to do the bed on my 20 year old Dakota Quad Cab. The hardest part was scuffing up the clear...
  • Art Vandelay: Naa. Many I disagree with are fine. But if the shoe fits…and I mean fits like that slipper on...
  • teddyc73: Freedom units? Those darn Americans using their own units of measurements and wanting freedom and such.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber