Adieu Georges

By Victor Dial

My heartbeat went up a notch or two when I first spotted the throng of visitors moving slowly but relentlessly closer, seemingly coming right at me. I felt like I was watching a phalanx in slow motion — powerful and irresistible, but in this case, unlikely to be fatal. I was in fact looking forward to the encounter, even if slightly apprehensive. Somewhere in the forefront of the approaching group was the President of the French Republic, the much-admired Georges Pompidou, and he was coming to visit the Ford exhibit as part of the opening ceremony. The time was early October 1973, and the occasion was the inauguration of the Salon d’Automobile in Paris, an event attended by automobile enthusiasts from all over France and Europe. Its importance was such that it was opened by the French President in person, and it was my duty to welcome him (as well as his legion of bodyguards, cabinet ministers, staffers, show officials, journalists, photographers, and other hangers-on) to our stand.

Georges Pompidou was elected President of France for a seven-year term in 1969, having previously served as Prime Minister under Charles de Gaulle. He was a popular President, credited when Prime Minister with having pulled the country from the brink with his adept handling of the revolutionaries of May 1968 that ultimately led to de Gaulle’s resignation.

It was barely a month since I’d been appointed Chairman and General Manager of Ford France. Managing a good-size Ford subsidiary [1] was a big step up in my career, and the opening of the Salon d’Auto was one of my first public appearances. As the throng closed in, I readied myself and silently rehearsed my welcoming remarks. I didn’t know how long he would stay, but I knew it would be brief. It turned out to be a few minutes: just enough time for me to introduce myself, welcome him, say something about our factory in Bordeaux, the new Ford products on display, and affirm our hope to continue investing in France. Then he and his group moved on to the next stop. While it was short, I could nevertheless boast that I’d met the President of France. It wouldn’t be the last time…

A few months later, shortly before Christmas we did indeed meet again, but this time it was in his magnificent office in the Elysée Palace, far, very far from the crowds and the chaos of the Auto Show. I was accompanying Henry Ford II and the President of Ford of Europe who’d flown in from London for this meeting. We were seeking approval of our plan to build a second factory in Bordeaux producing transaxles for the Fiesta (a new small car), creating 2,500 new jobs. President Pompidou was assisted by two of his top advisors. This meeting was the culmination of negotiations that had been on-going for several months, absorbing a lot of time and energy. To meet our tight schedule we needed a decision before year-end. The meeting was cordial and business-like, and lasted less than an hour. Our proposal was accepted. The meeting over, I escorted my two visitors back to Le Bourget for their return flight to London.

On Tuesday April 2, 1974 it was announced that President Pompidou had died of cancer. That afternoon my secretary alerted me that Mr. Ford [2] was calling from Dearborn. Mr. Ford said he remembered fondly our cordial meeting with Pompidou in December, and was considering attending the funeral. Did I think it was a good idea? I replied that his presence would be a sincere sign of respect. It’s settled then, he said, and asked me to make the arrangements and then specifically, to find out what to wear; he’d bring whatever he needed from the States.

My Director of Public Relations (who will remain nameless) was a somewhat aloof Frenchman. Within hours he reported back that the ceremony would be in the magnificent Cathédrale de Notre Dame on the coming Sunday, and that he’d obtained two invitations: one for Mr. Ford, and one for me. The correct attire was dark suits. Pleased to have been so efficient, I called Mr. Ford in Dearborn. He noted it all down, and asked me whether I was sure about the attire — dark suits. After I hung up, and just to be sure, I again asked my PR guy about the dress. He looked at me impatiently, and with a roll of the eyes and an exasperatingly noisy sigh, said yes, yes he was sure. He suggested we turn to the logistical arrangements for Mr. Ford: he expected us to take care of him while he was with us. He was known to be blunt if he didn’t like something, or someone. While it wasn’t the first time I’d been alone with him[3], it was the first time I’d be his host.

People today may have forgotten that in the 60’s and 70’s Ford was the third largest company in the world, only General Motors and Standard Oil (Esso) being bigger. The Ford family controlled 40% of the shares: Henry Ford II, grandson of the founder had been chairman for twenty years and had several times graced the cover of Time magazine – a high honor. He had a colorful private life, and was regarded with a mixture of awe and fear within the company.

Mr. Ford arrived in London Friday morning and called at around eleven to ask if everything was all set. I replied that preparations for the ceremony were in full swing: Heads of State were flying in from all over the world, and that Saturday, Sunday and Monday had been declared national days of mourning; activity would come to a virtual halt. He asked me to meet him at Le Bourget late Saturday afternoon, and accompany him to the Plaza Athenée. He said he had private plans for dinner.

I was relieved that the next day as we drove together into Paris he didn’t question me too closely about Ford France’s current difficulties – we were struggling with the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, as were all our competitors. Once settled into his suite, he offered me a drink and we continued to talk. At about seven I said good night. We agreed to meet the next morning at 9:30, in plenty of time to get to Notre Dame for the start of the service at 11.

It had taken several days to engrave the formal invitations and the necessary laissez-passer, and while I was with Mr. Ford on Saturday afternoon they had been hand-delivered to my apartment by motorcycle policeman.

My wife had invited some friends to dinner that evening, and of course I couldn’t resist telling everybody how important I was, taking Mr. Ford to President Pompidou’s funeral service the next day, and here, look at the invitations, which I hadn’t yet gotten around to opening. The elegant invitations were passed around with suitable oohs and aahs of admiration. One of my friends[4] casually wondered aloud how I’d look in my jacquette. Wait a minute! Did he say jacquette? I grabbed the invitation. There it was, prominently marked in the lower right-hand corner, jacquette. A jacquette is not a dark suit – it is a morning coat.

It was lucky Mr. PR wasn’t within my reach at that moment. All my carefully-planned arrangements had just collapsed. In seconds I conjured up the scene: Mr. Ford and I would arrive at Notre Dame with the world’s TV cameras focused solely on the two of us wearing dark suits, amid a sea of admirers wearing jacquettes, the only mourners not properly dressed. Instead of showing respect for a man we admired, we’d be yet another couple of Ugly Americans.

I don’t think I slept more than a wink that night. I saw my budding career coming to an abrupt end the next morning. The sales and financial results of Ford France were disappointing (momentarily, I hoped), and the man in charge was unreliable. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Mr. Ford had not just once, but several times asked me about the proper dress, and each time I’d confidently given him the wrong answer. How can you ever trust such a dimwit? In the Navy I was taught that the Captain of the ship is always responsible, even if not personally at fault. I concluded that he’d be fully justified in relieving me of my command — what else could he do? I wondered how I’d explain my sudden departure to my friends, and hoped that on my way out I’d at least have time to slowly strangle Mr. PR. At some point during the night, I came up with a sort of plan. However hopeless, I’d go down fighting.

I was up and dressed at 5 a.m. My “plan” was to search the yellow pages, and make a list of what looked like the biggest jacquette-renting stores. I’d go to one after the other and try to find someone to open it — I had a thick wad of cash and I’d pay whatever it took. (I hoped as a last resort to avoid having to break into a store, and temporarily “borrow” one.) My plan was a long shot, I realized, considering that it was before sunrise on a Sunday and a solemn national holiday to boot, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. The costume-rental store with the biggest ad (a full page!) was called the “Cor de Chasse (the hunter’s horn)”. This didn’t sound like the name of a store that rented dress clothes, but I was impressed by the size of their ad – I’d start with them. At 5:30, I nervously dialed their number, steeling myself for disappointment. It was a desperate, hopeless effort, almost certainly a waste of time. But no!!! A man answered on the first ring! I was so non-plussed that I nearly forgot why I was calling. I could have kissed him. The store had been open since five.

I got to the store minutes later — there was zero traffic — and was astonished to find it full of people, mostly African heads of state, trying on their jacquettes. I didn’t know Mr. Ford’s size, so I rented three, one being the size that I thought he actually was, and one on either side, in case I was mistaken. My relief at having my career probably saved overcame my misgivings about the wasteful expense of renting three jacquettes, plus one for me of course.

I arrived at the Plaza at about 9, earlier than we’d agreed, and when I learned that Mr. Ford had already ordered breakfast I called and he invited me right up. He was surprised to see me in my jacquette, so I explained that there’d been a last-minute change of protocol, but that this was no problem, because I had a jacquette for him. He accepted this without comment, and it turned out that the size I’d chosen fit him well. If he noticed the two other boxes, he didn’t mention them.

The funeral service was very moving, and I gawked at all the famous people I’d seen only in pictures. President Nixon was there, as was just about every other Head of State. Mr. Ford saw a number of people he knew, and told me how glad he was to have come.

As you’d expect, the funeral ceremony was imposing and dignified, as befitting a sitting President, and at which the French excel. As soon as the service was over we headed straight for our car and the airport; Mr. Ford was booked on a 2 p.m. flight to New York, so he’d checked out of the Plaza before going to the cathedral. Even if there was little traffic, timing was a bit tight. As we were driving along, I began to wonder where and under what circumstances I would recuperate Mr. Ford’s jacquette. Mr. Ford seemed to think of this at the same time, so we stopped the car in the break-down lane of the autoroute and he selected his travelling clothes from his suitcase in the trunk. Then we got back in, with me in front. The driver started up once again, and Mr. Ford changed trousers in the back seat. This unexpected event provided incontrovertible proof of the adage that “the rich and famous put their pants on one leg at a time, like the rest of us.”

By now I felt somewhat relaxed with Mr. Ford and felt bold enough to tell him about the last-minute problem of the jacquettes. He burst out laughing, particularly when I told him about jostling with African dignitaries trying on jacquettes at six in the morning. He remarked that he’d seen many guests in dark suits, and wouldn’t have minded if he’d had to wear his! So much anguish for nothing! Several days later he sent me an elegant letter of thanks.

As Mr. Ford enjoyed Paris I had quite a few other occasions to be his host, all in happier circumstances. Our final meeting came during the Auto Show in October 1980, where he (and I) welcomed President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (with whom I was by now well acquainted).

That evening we celebrated Mr. Ford’s forth-coming retirement with an elegant black-tie dinner for 800 guests in the Salle des Batailles at the Palais de Versailles. It turned out that this was the last Paris Auto Show that I would host for Ford. In January 1981 I began work at the headquarters of nearly bankrupt Peugeot PSA. A big step up, and the start of a new and much different life…


[1] Ford’s interests in France included car, truck, and parts distribution; two factories making automatic transmissions and transaxles employing 5,000 workers in Bordeaux; a credit company; agricultural machinery distribution; and Richier, a manufacturer of tower cranes.

[2] Well-known Bostonian Frank “Butch” Hunnewell, (Harvard)

[3] Out of respect, everybody called Mr. Ford Mr. Ford

[4] I first met Mr. Ford in 1969 when he accepted an invitation from President Mobuto to meet at the Waldorf Towers in New York to discuss the prospects for an assembly plant in Zaire (ex Congo). [I was in charge of French-speaking Africa and Israel at the time, based in Paris.] I met Mr. Ford in Detroit, and the two of us flew together to Teterboro. After the meeting Mr. Ford kindly invited me for a drink at his apartment in the Carlyle where he kept a number of his impressionist paintings.


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