Young Benson Ford Faces a Drug Rap, a Legal Snarl and Broken Dreams of An Automobile Empire
Benson Ford Jr., great-grandson of Henry, was not quite the black sheep of the auto dynasty; that title perhaps better fit his cousin Alfie, a convert to the Hare Krishna sect. But Ben Jr.'s father, a corporate board member and top shareholder, died last summer, apparently wary of putting Ford in his only son's future—and with some reason. Ben, 29, had rebelliously bolted his dynasty's beloved Detroit heartland for California's Whittier College—and, while there, took a headspin into hot rods, high-stakes poker and drugs, dropping out at one point to be a foundry worker. "I want to get what I want out of college," he said. "Not what it wants out of me." Belatedly at 28, he eked out a bachelor's degree, and cushioned by a reported $20-million fortune and the offer of a training job with Ford in Mexico that could take him to the top, he made plans for a master's degree in business administration. "Whittier is going to give me credit for the executive training I'll be getting," he explained. "I may have to fly my professors down to Mexico on occasion. But I'll be the first in my generation to get a master's."
Benson's standing in the empire has been deteriorating steadily ever since. The job in Mexico never came through. He is challenging his mother as executrix of his father's will, which leaves him a $7.5 million trust, most of it in company stock, but gives voting rights to a trustee. He recently met with superlawyer Roy Cohn in New York to discuss cooperating in a clamorous $50-million shareholders' suit against Uncle Henry II, chairman of the Ford Motor Co. board, for alleged abuses of office—including financing his high life with company funds. "I just want my rights as a family member and stockholder," argues Ben, who says he probably won't help Cohn after all. "Someday I'd like to be on the board of directors."
His chances of that are increasingly dim, however. On his return from a trip to Asia in January, customs officials in San Francisco searched him (he hadn't declared the new watch he was wearing) and found almost two grams of cocaine and more than nine grams of hashish in his pockets. After a hearing on the resultant charges this week, Benson is due in L.A. Superior Court to answer allegations that he and his two business partners defrauded real estate heir Shirley Stack of $225,000. Rumors of other irregularities in his business dealings continue to surface. "I think he's a good boy who's gotten mixed up with the wrong people," insists Bill Stroppe, a longtime Ford Motor subcontractor who has lost everything but his house to the lawsuits young Ford has lodged since their auto-parts partnership broke up in 1975.
Ben's childhood in Detroit's lush Grosse Pointe suburb was a predictably bittersweet exercise in super-affluence and over-protectiveness. He was off to boarding school in Connecticut in his teens, and by college age had become a determined rebel. He chose Whittier for "sunshine and warm-weather sports," he said, and academics left him cold. Accordingly, his father arranged for him to meet Bill Stroppe, a sponsor-manufacturer of off-road (over unpaved land) race vehicles. Benson made a formidable first impression—turning up for the interview in a chauffeured limousine—but Stroppe soon found him almost pathetically naive. "He never carried enough money with him even for a sandwich," recalls Stroppe, "and he didn't know about tipping either. He was a nice kid. He just didn't know any better." But he knew and loved fast cars, and when Stroppe took Ben to his first off-road race in 1971, he was hooked. "It's your challenge against the elements," says Ben, now a veteran of dozens of off-road competitions, usually driving with a former college poker buddy, Elliot Kaplan, 28.
Stroppe took Ben in as a partner and taught him the trade, but Ford's loyalties soon seemed to change. Friend Kaplan introduced Ben to Louis Fuentes, 55, who then headed a flourishing psychoanalytic clinic near Whittier (though he himself was neither an M.D. nor a licensed psychologist). The two men became fast friends and Fuentes soon gave up the clinic to become Ford's full-time partner in Luben Industries, Inc., a mining, real-estate and construction conglomerate doing an annual $3 million in business. Ford is president of Luben and Fuentes is chairman of the board, but some of Ben's friends say the titles describe as much a psychological symbiosis as a corporate reality. "Benson is easily led," says one. "Fuentes is the brains, and Ben's brainwashed. Everything is Fuentes, and Benson Sr. took that in."
Young Ford's problems do not seem likely to go away soon. But Ford Motor HQ in Dearborn is taking no questions on Benson, and Benson himself was unavailable for comment, perhaps hewing to Henry II's famous line when he was arrested in 1975 for drunk driving with a young model in tow: "Never complain, never explain." But Ben's complaints are public now, his explanations required in court, and he can expect little help from the family. "When you're away from your parents," he said once, "you learn to deal with the real world—you fight to survive or get gobbled up." Perhaps the next few months will be the test Ben Ford has been waiting for.
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