Lee Iacocca, the mastermind behind the Ford Mustang and the straight-talking captain of Chrysler’s historic U.S. rescue and 1980s turnaround that brought him acclaim as America’s most famous CEO and car salesman, died on Tuesday. He was 94.
The death was reported by The Washington Post, which cited Iacocca's family.
Iacocca, a natural huckster and tireless competitor with Italian roots and a penchant for cigars, vinyl car roofs and Greek-temple grilles, defined the role of the imperial American executive -- first as president of Ford Motor Co., then as chairman and CEO of Chrysler -- for much of the last quarter of the 20th century.
With a sometimes brash, no-nonsense style and fiery tongue, he was the towering public face, corporate pitchman and voice for the American auto industry’s triumphs and challenges.
“I think America is getting an inferiority complex about Japan,” Iacocca lamented before a group of Chrysler executives in one late 1980s TV commercial. “Everything from Japan is perfect. Everything from America is lousy ... now that’s got to stop.”
Doug Fraser, the late UAW president and Chrysler director, once pegged Iacocca “a hip shooter deluxe.” Newsweek, in a 1963 profile, said he could be as “direct as the thrust of a piston.” Playboy called him "a businessman of the old school, a guy who smells the territory and goes with his gut."
In the early 1980s, with the U.S. auto industry on its heels amid soaring gasoline prices, inflation and rising Japanese imports, Iacocca’s optimism and fierce competitive spirit helped revive Chrysler and renew Detroit’s fortunes.
“The most amazing thing about the guy is that he just never gives up,” the late Ben Bidwell, a longtime Ford executive and later Chrysler vice chairman, once said of Iacocca. “Every day he gets up and every day he attacks. You get discouraged yourself. But he just never, never, never gives up on the company, on its products, on whatever.”
Iacocca was hailed as “Detroit’s comeback kid” in a March 1983 cover story in Time. Two years later, when asked to name the person they most admired for a 1985 Gallup Poll, Americans ranked Iacocca third -- behind President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. The next year, Iacocca placed second in the survey, behind Reagan and ahead of the pope.
At the end of his storied automotive career, spanning the late 1940s to the early 1990s, Iacocca admitted what many colleagues had already discovered: He was better at managing and leading during turbulent times than good.
“I’m built that way,” Iacocca told the Associated Press in December 1992, the month he retired from Chrysler. “Some guys fight better with real ammunition … on maneuvers they goof off. My adrenaline flows when you’re really in the trenches and things are tough.”
Risky gamble on pony car
Iacocca’s keen product planning skills were behind Ford’s risky gamble, soon after the Edsel flop, to bring the Mustang to market in 1964. The first so-called pony car, with its low price and sleek styling, was an instant sensation and gave a new generation of young Americans another reason to fall in love with Detroit metal.
With just $45 million to develop and build -- what he called "an unheard of low amount at the time to design and push a new car line through to production" -- the overnight success of the Mustang put Iacocca on the fast track at Ford.
“Few people understood the sizzle that existed between the car and a driver better than Lee Iacocca,” historian and author Douglas Brinkley observed in his 2003 book, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress.
Iacocca’s second home run, the minivan, was an innovative people hauler that spawned a new segment in the 1980s, became one of the most profitable consumer products ever created, inspired a raft of copycats and helped Chrysler reap billions of dollars in sales for decades. The design was inspired by a former colleague at Ford, Hal Sperlich.
“He could sell you anything and back it up with his sales talk, logic and facts,” the late William Clay Ford Sr., grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford and a longtime Ford executive and director, once said of Iacocca. “He is an extraordinary salesman, an extraordinary talent.”
The Chrysler years
Chrysler was hemorrhaging cash and careening toward bankruptcy when Chrysler Chairman and CEO John Riccardo hired Iacocca to become president and COO of the company on Nov. 2, 1978.
The same day, Chrysler reported nearly $160 million in third-quarter losses -- a staggering pile of red ink for an automaker and a company record at the time.
While he had just been fired months earlier as president of Ford Motor Co. by Henry Ford II, in one of the Motor City’s most acrimonious splits, Iacocca was quickly embraced as Chrysler’s savior.
“It’s a coup, and a good one, and we thank Henry Ford II for it,” a dealer told Automotive News the week Iacocca joined Chrysler.
Less than a year later, Riccardo, exhausted by efforts to secure a government bailout, abruptly retired and Iacocca became chairman and CEO of Chrysler on Sept. 20, 1979.
In a 1992 interview with Automotive News, Iacocca said the situation when he arrived at Chrysler was far worse than he had expected.
“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know that bad,” he said at the time. “What I didn’t know was how rotten the system was. How bad purchasing was. How many guys were on the take. How rotten it was to the core. That stunned me.”