MILEPOSTS Garage - The Online Classic Car Magazine Some Ford executives resented the change to the front end grille treatment of the 1970 Thunderbird ordered by Bunkie Knudsen. But it was Ford's dealers who were outraged and dismayed when they viewed it at the 1970 dealer previews.
Everything from Hood Ornaments to Tail Lamps Image: 1970 Thunderbird front grille styling
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Vol. 4, No. 3
February 5, 2007
Updated October 3, 2009

The Story of Bunkie Knudsen and Ford
by Automotive Mileposts Staff

Image: MILEPOSTS Garage

Image: Bunkie KnudsenSemon E. ("Bunkie") Knudsen (1912-1998) was the son of William S. Knudsen, a former president at General Motors. In 1968, at the age of 55, after a successful 29-year career at GM in which he rose to become head of the Pontiac Division, Bunkie left GM to take the position of President at Ford Motor Company. He was a little miffed that he had been recently passed over for the same position at GM, which was of course the exact same position his father had once held. Henry Ford II personally recruited Bunkie in January 1968, just days after GM's board had met and decided to offer the presidency to Edward N. Cole. A secret visit to Knudsen's mansion in Bingham Farms, Michigan near Detroit sealed the deal. Knudsen was given a stock bonus of $750,000 and a guaranteed salary of $1 million over the next five years. He also got an option to purchase 75,000 shares of Ford stock. In all, the deal with Ford more than offset the $1 million in accrued bonus awards he would be giving up upon leaving General Motors. Insiders in the Motor City thought this move was an exceptional feat for Ford, and a good one for Knudsen as well. A gentleman in every sense of the word, Knudsen was also somewhat strong willed, and had his own ideas about how Ford should be run.

Ford had always been operated by a member of the Ford Family, and the Chief Executive Officer of Ford at the time, Henry Ford II, was the grandson of the founder of the company. Ford insisted on maintaining absolute control of the business, and made sure he was involved in all of the important decisions that needed to be made. It was originally thought that Knudsen would be a good choice for Ford, as he had worked his way up through the management ranks at General Motors, a company whose success was largely defined by its strong management procedures.

But Ford Motor Company had passed over a few talented insiders when it hired from outside the company. One in particular, 44-year old Lee A. Iacocca, who was the Executive Vice President, had proven himself a strong marketing guy. Iacocca was responsible for the Ford Mustang, one of Ford Motor Company's biggest successes, and was about to have another hit with the new Maverick. Iacocca was very disappointed and somewhat shocked when he learned that Knudsen had been hired, but those feelings turned into resentment when it was discovered that Knudsen planned to manage things from the plant instead of his executive office.

Knudsen sometimes arrived for work as early as 7:15 a.m., and would often tour the Ford Design Center, asking for changes to be made that would clash with the desires of the designers and the demands of other Ford executives. One of those executives was Iacocca, who felt that Knudsen was forcing policy changes in parts of the company that fell under Iacocca's responsibility. When he learned of a change to the 1970 Thunderbird grille ordered by Knudsen, which made the car resemble a Pontiac, Iacocca stormed upstairs to Henry Ford's office and advised him that he could no longer tolerate Knudsen's meddling, and that the grille on the Thunderbird was the last straw.

Apparently Chairman Ford was not thrilled with Knudsen's methods either, so in September of 1969, Bunkie Knudsen was fired from Ford. He had been hired in at a starting salary of $580,952 in 1968, and his termination was considered one of the biggest shake-ups of the year in Detroit. Knudsen's departure put Iacocca in a very strong position to negotiate, and Henry Ford II had apparently always planned on developing Iacocca's talents anyway.

Insiders at the time said Knudsen shouldn't have been surprised to have been fired, as he'd been warned earlier about moving too fast in his new job. That advice came from Henry Ford II. One insider reported that if Knudsen "had walked in quietly and made his way slowly for a year or two, there would have been no problem. But some people thought he was trying to take over. He just didn't understand the people at Ford. He was told six months after he got the job to take it easy, but he didn't. He should have learned to live with those people." After his termination, when asked for his view of why he was fired, Knudsen said that Henry (Ford) "wanted to resume control of the company."

Instead of naming a new company president, Ford's Board of Directors elected to split the position and appoint Presidents to head up three of Ford's major operating groups. Iacocca was head of all auto product development, manufacturing, and sales in the United States and Canada, and two other high level executives, Robert Stevenson and Robert J. Hampson, headed up other groups.

Iacocca, when asked if he was sorry to see Knudsen go, replied: "I've never said 'No comment' to the press in my life, but I'll say it to that one."

At this point, it was too late for Iacocca to make changes to the 1970 models, and only minor changes could be made to the 1971 cars, but some of the 1972 models, including the all new Thunderbird, would change dramatically under the new leadership.

In 1971, Knudsen became President of White Motor Corporation, a truck manufacturer in Cleveland, Ohio. He worked there until his retirement in 1980.

Copyright © 2007 Automotive Mileposts, Inc. All rights reserved.
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