In the late 1970s and ’80s, Lee Iacocca was American auto. From the K-Car platform, to the revival of Mercury to the minivan to the Mustang, Iacocca spearheaded many of the vehicles and policies that shaped the way the Big Three (and the whole of the American auto industry) functioned. As CEO of first Ford and then Chrysler, which he brought back from the dead, he was a visionary leader able to look at the needs of the consumer and the country to push through vehicle platforms that would revolutionize the industry.
Iacocca, a son of Italian immigrants, began his career in the auto industry after graduating from Princeton. He initially worked as an engineer at Ford before moving on to the business side in sales and marketing. He became president of the Ford Motor Company in 1970 and was instrumental in developing the Mustang, among other iconic Ford models.
He was also involved in the development of the Pinto, which represented a consumer need for a small, cheap, efficient vehicle but also proved a safety hazard due to structural flaws that had been allowed to go into production.
Despite that, Iacocca lead Ford to financial success but clashes in vision with owner Henry Ford II ultimately resulted in Iacocca leaving Ford in 1978 and accepting a leadership role at Chrysler, which was struggling.
Iacocca’s subsequent request to Congress for a $1.5 billion loan guarantee to save Chrysler ultimately set a precedent that would allow Congress to bail out the rest of the auto industry in the recession of the late 2000’s.
His leadership at Chrysler resulted in the development of two platforms that would change the way the auto industry looked at vehicles: the Minivan and the K-Car (both concepts that had been rejected at Ford) would become best-selling models embraced by the industry as a whole. The lightweight, front-wheel drive compact K-Car platform was seen in the Dodge Ares and Plymouth Reliant.
Media campaigns played an important role in Chrysler’s re-birth, which Iacocca at the forefront. The signature slogans of “If you can find a better car, buy it” and “The pride is back” both represented Iacocca’s larger than life personality and ability to sell both the cars and the idea of American auto to the people. It worked. Chrysler paid back the loan in four years, three years earlier than the seven allotted.
“Iacocca, An Autobiography” became a best-seller in 1984 and Iacocca’s popularity soared. There was even talk of a presidential run in 1988.
The fame also translated into charitable work. President Reagan tapped him to head the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation which aimed to raise funds to restore the Statue of Liberty. He also donated proceeds from his books and other efforts to diabetes research after losing his first wife, Mary, to the disease.
However, the auto boom had an inevitable end as Iacocca and other industry executives ignored the looming recession and the influx of efficient Japanese cars into the American landscape. While American autos veered once again into the large and gas guzzling, Honda, Toyota and the other imports were offering economic, practical alternatives. By the time the stock market crashed again in 1987, Iacocca and American auto were both struggling to find a foothold. While partnerships with several other auto manufacturers eased the decline somewhat, Iacocca stepped down from Chrysler in 1992.
Later in life, Iacocca would serve on various boards, help to helm an unsuccessful hostile takeover of Chrysler with Kirk Kerkorian, work with electric motorcycle company EV Global Motors, and continue his charitable work.
Iacocca represented to larger than life industry executive, the cigar-chomping, boardroom ring master, a product of the post-war can-do attitude who helped steer the American love affair with the automobile through its heyday. In the 1980s, even if you knew nothing about cars, you knew who Lee Iacocca was. And if you loved cars, you owed him a debt of gratitude for keeping that industry part of the American dream and guiding many of the icons of that era into existence.
FCA shared a public statement on its former leader: “The Company is saddened by the news of Lee Iacocca’s passing. He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a true competitive force. He was one of the great leaders of our company and the auto industry as a whole. He also played a profound and tireless role on the national stage as a business statesman and philanthropist.
Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today – one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit. We are committed to ensuring that Chrysler, now FCA, is such a company, an example of commitment and respect, known for excellence as well as for its contribution to society. His legacy is the resiliency and unshakeable faith in the future that live on in the men and women of FCA who strive every day to live up to the high standards he set.”
Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca passed away July 2, 2019 due to complications of Parkinson’s disease, according to a family spokesperson.