Robert S. McNamara was best known as the chief architect of the Vietnam War and one of Ford Motor Co.’s famous “Whiz Kids,” a group of 10 U.S. Army Air Force officers that helped bring financial discipline to the auto maker in the late-1940s.

But McNamara, who died yesterday at the age of 93, also was an innovator in automotive safety, as well as an early advocate of reducing vehicle emissions and improving fuel economy.

McNamara joined Ford in 1946 as a manager of planning and financial analysis after serving in World War II as a statistics officer, bringing a unique and strict method of financial organization.

However, he quickly climbed the ranks to become comptroller of the auto maker in 1949. In 1953, he was promoted to assistant general manager-Ford division before being named manager of the division two years later.

By 1957, McNamara was vice-president in charge of all car and truck divisions, as well as a member of the board of directors as well as the auto maker’s executive and administration committees.

He succeeded Henry Ford II as president in 1960, becoming the first non-family member to hold that position. But perhaps he is best remembered by the industry for pushing safety when most in the industry considered it an afterthought.

In 1956, McNamara ushered into production the “Lifeguard” package, which featured a standard “deep-center” steering wheel that helped prevent drivers from being impaled by the steering column during a collision, and “double-grip” door latches to prevent occupants from being ejected.

Optional safety features included front and rear seatbelts, a padded dashboard and sun visors, and a rear-view mirror constructed of safety glass.

But the package proved unpopular with both the public, which did not want to spend additional money on something seemingly unimportant, and Ford executives, who were more concerned with keeping pace with archrival General Motors Corp.

McNamara’s emphasis on safety prompted Ford Chairman Henry Ford II to famously quip, “McNamara is selling safety, but Chevrolet is selling cars.”

However, that was not a fair assessment of the situation, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety located in Washington.

“Those were the days when GM still dominated the industry, and if they dropped prices a hundred dollars it dramatically impacted Ford’s profitability,” he tells Ward’s.

“You could easily say (McNamara) was ahead of his time, and if Ford had continued to offer that package for several years, instead of one, it would have been a dramatic success.”

Not only would McNamara’s Lifeguard package eventually have helped sell cars, it also would have saved tens of thousands of lives and helped better prepare the domestic auto industry to compete against the Asian imports that would arrive on U.S. shores decades later, Ditlow says.

“Really, that period in time was a lost opportunity for Ford and the domestic industry to head off what eventually became the Japanese domination of the marketplace,” he says, noting McNamara faced significant internal opposition to his push for safety.

“Any time you’re a person at Ford and your last name isn’t Ford, you have a hard time,” Ditlow says.

McNamara also championed fuel economy, oftentimes complaining about the dismal efficiency of Ford’s offerings.

Former Chrysler CEO Lee A. Iacocca, who as a young man worked under McNamara, recently told an American Heritage website how perplexed he was over McNamara’s fascination with fuel efficiency.

“He wanted small cars way back then,” Iacocca says. “He wanted pollution controls. I didn’t know what he meant when he talked about emissions in the 1950s. He said we had to start worrying about pollutants. People didn’t know what the ecology was.”

While McNamara was known more for his financial acumen than being a “car guy,” he did play a key role in some product decisions, which dramatically altered Ford’s image.

For instance, his interest in small cars led in part to the introduction of the Ford Falcon sedan, which was launched in 1959 as a ’60 model. The Falcon, which was smaller than most cars at the time, was an unmitigated success. In 1960-1961, Ford sold 353,209 Falcons, according to Ward’s data.

Yet, McNamara’s advice often was ignored. Such was the case with the ill-fated Edsel, which he opposed. The Edsel was to be the first in a new line of vehicles, slated between the Ford brand and the upscale Lincoln/Mercury division.

Despite McNamara’s opposition, Henry Ford II pushed the project through. The car ultimately went down in automotive history as one of the largest flops ever. Ford pulled the plug on the marque with the ’60 model after only three years of production.

While they didn’t always see eye to eye, Ford’s chairman held a deep appreciation for McNamara’s unique talents, says David Lewis, professor emeritus of business history, Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Lewis offers Ward’s a rare transcript from a taped interview he conducted with Henry Ford II on March 2, 1982, revealed for the first time.

“He is a very bright guy, a good organizer, a big thinker, planner and doer,” Henry Ford II says of McNamara in the transcript. “McNamara's problem is that he's mentally so far ahead of everybody else that he can't get down on the same level with others very easily, and that causes communications problems.

“McNamara probably is responsible, more than anybody else, for the proliferation of models in the automotive industry. He was the originator of the Falcon, the Fairlane and all of the other kinds of cars that proliferated throughout the industry and enlarged the industry to a very great extent,” Henry Ford II adds.

General Motors wasn't taking this approach, and Chrysler wasn't either. GM basically had a Buick, two sizes of Buicks, but not with different names."

McNamara remained at Ford’s helm for less than two months, resigning to become U.S. secretary of defense for President John F. Kennedy.

In a statement issued Monday, Ford Chairman Bill Ford credits McNamara with the many contributions to the auto maker.

“Robert McNamara's dedicated service to Ford Motor Company will long be remembered,” Bill Ford says. “Bob's contributions as a member of the history-making ‘Whiz Kids’ and his visionary efforts on behalf of automotive safety and environmentalism are as relevant today as they were then. We mourn his passing and extend our deepest sympathy to his family.”

Had Henry Ford II and other Ford executives heeded McNamara’s advice, the U.S. automotive industry would have been dramatically different, Ditlow says.

“If McNamara and the other Whiz Kids had a longer run, Ford and the public would have been better off with more safe, fuel efficient and reliable vehicles,” he says.

“McNamara is still remembered within the industry for trying to do what was right in terms of safety and fuel efficiency, and I think that’s what he’s going to be remembered for.”

bpope@wardsauto.com