Lee Iacocca has passed away. While his name isn’t familiar to most people today under the age of 60, in his prime Iacocca was renowned as a car man extraordinaire; one of the “old guard” executives in the auto industry whose vision helped to propel first Ford and then Chrysler to the heights of success.
The iconic Ford Mustang is largely Iacocca’s baby. He envisioned a car whose looks and handling would rival those of European sports cars, but remain affordable to the average American. By using parts common to other models, Ford was able to build the car inexpensively and offer it for sale starting in 1964 for only $2,400. The Mustang was a huge success and competitors GM and Chrysler rushed to emulate it.
Henry Ford II fired Iacocca from his job as Ford’s president in 1978. Ford said it was due to personality conflicts; Iacocca said it was because Ford was an authoritarian type who had grown to resent Iacocca’s popularity among the rank-and-file in the company. Ford also did not agree with Iacocca’s assessment that smaller, more fuel efficient cars were the key to continued growth.
Iacocca didn’t stay unemployed very long. In 1979 he was hired as the president of Chrysler Corporation. At the time, Chrysler was in dire financial straits and facing bankruptcy due to a changing market where its vehicles were no longer desirable, and a top-heavy management structure that lacked vision and accountability.
In one of his first acts as president of Chrysler, Iacocca made the gutsy move to approach the federal government for $1.8 billion dollars in loan guarantees. He argued that a cash infusion would save thousands of jobs, and a reinvigorated Chrysler would keep the industry more competitive.
Critics howled in protest, saying it wasn’t the federal government’s business to meddle in the affairs of a doomed company. However, Congress bought Iacocca’s argument and granted the guarantees.
On his end, Iacocca acted quickly to show he was serious about bringing Chrysler back from the brink of disaster. He axed most of the top executive structure at the company, which was bloated with dozens of vice presidents and managers. He began to phase out cars that had been languishing in the marketplace for years. He set his own salary at only $1 per year.
However, his decision to focus on small, gas-sipping cars are what truly turned Chrysler’s fortunes around. He personally served as the spokesman in the company’s new television commercials that promoted the fuel-efficient K-Car line, and advised viewers with the now-legendary sales pitch, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
The K-Cars were a success among consumers who were looking for cheap, attractive cars with good mileage, and they became a formidable, less expensive alternative to the growing wave of Japanese imports. Chrysler, using the same production strategy Iacocca pioneered for the Ford Mustang, was able to produce various models across the Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler brands using common parts, which meant the cars could be built faster, sell for far less money and still make a profit.
Today’s popularity of the minivan is due in large part to Iacocca’s vision in bringing the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager to consumers. Families with several children flocked to dealerships to buy them because they offered generous passenger and storage space for little money while being stylish and fun to drive.
Iacocca also engineered Chrysler’s 1987 purchase of AMC Motors, which brought the Jeep line to the company — and whose sales continue to be a major portion of the company’s profits.
In a resounding “I told you so”, Chrysler ended up paying back the loans years before they came due. The government also made millions in the stock it received as part of the terms of the guarantees.
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992. True to his nature, he did not really retire at all. His wife Mary had died from diabetes in 1983. Even before then he had been prominent in charitable endeavors that provided funding for diabetes research.
After stepping down from Chrysler Iacocca became even more active in his efforts, even founding a food products company whose profits were donated to the cause. All profits from his books likewise went towards diabetes research.
Among other philanthropic works, Iacocca headed the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which was created to raise funds for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and the renovation of Ellis Island. He also served as chairman of Nourish the Children, a foundation dedicated to fighting child hunger in the world.
Despite his many humanitarian contributions, Lee Iacocca will first and foremost be remembered for his larger-than-life image as the straight-talking, cigar-chomping auto exec who personified a bygone era when Detroit and American vehicles totally commanded the world market.
In an industry that produced legends like Walter Chrysler and Henry Ford, Americans and the world in general were singularly captivated by this son of poor Italian immigrants who through determination and sheer hard work became the only executive in modern times to run two of the “Big Three” auto makers — a true rags to riches story.
Lee Iacocca was a shining example to millions of people that America was truly the land of opportunity no matter how humble one’s origins. He never forgot where he came from, and always sought to give back to his fellow man. The world is a lesser place without him in it.