Cleveland, Ohio – Legendary automotive executive Lee Iacocca, responsible at times for the development of the Ford Mustang, the minivan, and the 1980s revitalization of Chrysler, has died. He was 94.
Iacocca’s early career was with Ford where he started as an engineering trainee in 1946. He quickly moved to marketing. As a rising star in the company’s sales division, his career took off in 1964 as the executive in charge of getting the Mustang on the road.
An instant hit, the Mustang created the market for the muscle car – an inexpensive sporty vehicle for people who couldn’t afford a sports car. Though the initial version featured a V-6, more powerful V-8 engines followed, giving the Mustang its performance reputation.
The car’s massive success cemented his future with the company, and by 1970, he was president. Unfortunately, he and then-CEO Henry Ford II butted heads on corporate direction and management. In 1978, Ford fired Iacocca, a moment that Iacocca called the worst moment in his life in his autobiography.
The next step of his career was with Chrysler.
“I went from the frying pan into the fire,” Iacocca said in his autobiography. “A year after I signed up, Chrysler came within a whisker of bankruptcy. There were many days at Chrysler when I wondered how I got myself into this mess. Being fired at Ford was bad enough. But going down with the ship at Chrysler was more than I deserved.”
Iacocca joined Chrysler as president and CEO in 1978, a few months after his firing from Ford. The company was losing money at the time and as the former chief noted was close to bankruptcy. He lobbied Congress in 1979 for a $1.5 billion bailout – loan guarantees to ensure creditors that they’d be paid. The company used $1.2 billion of the guarantees.
Suppliers, creditors, and unions all agreed to concessions, giving Chrysler the breathing room it needed to recover and launch new products. Iacocca cut his $360,000 salary to $1. He spearheaded the launch of the little-loved but profitable K-cars, inexpensive sedans that offered better fuel efficiency and lower ownership costs than some rivals.
Iacocca appeared in Chrysler commercials at the time, using the classic selling phrase, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
In those early days at Chrysler, he also oversaw development of another market-creating vehicle. In 1983, the company launched the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan – the industry’s first minivans. Smaller and less expensive than the conversion vans (commercial vans converted for consumer use) available at the time, the minivan was an alternative to the station wagon in the pre-SUV days of the industry.
Chrysler still dominates that market with its Chrysler Pacifica and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles. The Voyager name is set to return late this year as a lower-cost version of the Pacifica minivan.
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992 having guided the company through its near bankruptcy and expanding it in 1987 by buying American Motors from French automaker Renault. That deal brought Jeep to Chrysler. In his second autobiography, he said he also considered trying to buy General Motors but gave up on the idea because of the potential deal’s size and complexity.
In 1995, he nearly returned to Chrysler in partnership with investor Kirk Kerkorian. The idea was to take the company private with Iacocca in charge. Chrysler’s board rejected the deal, and Iacocca remained retired, although he worked with the company in 2005 on a series of commercials that revived his “better car” line.
Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford praised Iacocca as a visionary, calling him a personal mentor.
“Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry and our country. Lee played a central role in the creation of Mustang,” Ford said. “On a personal note, I will always appreciate how encouraging he was to me at the beginning of my career. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.”
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the company created in 2009 when Chrysler merged with Fiat as part of its second government bailout – this time with a direct cash infusion instead of loan guarantees – is honoring the former chief by lighting the two-story Pentastar window atop the Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters tower. The window will remain lit until midnight, July 10, to coincide with Iacocca’s funeral, which will take place at St. Hugo of the Hills Church in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
FCA officials called Iacocca “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.”
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 19 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.