Although the name probably means little to anyone younger than 35, Lee Iacocca was a force to be reckoned with in the auto industry in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. With his passing at his home in Bel Air, California on July 2, 2019, one of the true legends of the auto industry was lost. He was 94.
The legacy he left behind is one crammed with accomplishment, not the least of which was running two of the Big Three carmakers: Ford and Chrysler. During his more than three decades at Ford, he is credited with launching the Ford Mustang. After a very public firing by Ford board chairman Henry Ford II from his position as the president of Ford, Mr. Iacocca joined a struggling Chrysler.
Bigger than life, Mr. Iacocca almost single-handedly turned that company around. Securing government loan guarantees allowing Chrysler to borrow $1.2 billion to invest in new products, he pulled Chrysler back from the brink. Some of the Ford team following him to Chrysler, brought along plans for a vehicle seating seven that Ford had no interest in developing. Mr. Iacocca finally was able to build the minivan he had lobbied for at Ford. As a part of FCA, Chrysler still markets more minivans than any other carmaker. As dismissive as its detractors are, the front-wheel-drive K-car platform introduced in 1981, spawned a series of affordable cars that kept Chrysler’s lights on as Mr. Iacocca worked his magic.
Mr. Iacocca was as much a salesman as an innovator. He became the face of Chrysler in television ads, challenging viewers, “If you can find a better car, buy it.” Chrysler sales boomed and the loans were repaid in four years — seven years early. It was during his watch that convertibles returned to Chrysler’s lineup, which inspired other carmakers to follow suit. It was Lee Iacocca who convinced a nation it needed airbags. No one knew they needed one until Chrysler began making them standard equipment, and Mr. Iacocca went on the airwaves touting the added safety of Chrysler’s products.
Cox Automotive’s Michelle Krebs remembers being at a press conference at the Chrysler headquarters in Highland Park during Mr. Iacocca’s struggle to build a new headquarters in Auburn Hills. “I don’t want to spend one more dime on leaky roofs,” she remembers him saying about the ancient Highland Park site. “Proceeds from the minivan built the new headquarters,” she added.
Everything he touched didn’t turn to gold. At one point he took his eye off the ball and his focus from Chrysler. The result was acquiring Gulfstream. But one acquisition that did pay off was American Motors. Critics thought him crazy for purchasing the foundering carmaker, but all he really wanted out of the deal was the crown jewel of American Motors: Jeep. The payoff was huge. And, just before he retired from Chrysler, his decision was vindicated with the launch of another of his legacy vehicles: the Grand Cherokee.
According to Krebs, Lee Iacocca was the quintessential example of the American dream. He was forever grateful for the open arms of the United States to his immigrant parents. No doubt, it was this gratitude that inspired him to head up the fundraising for restoring the Statue of Liberty in the early 1980s. “His dad was a hot-dog vendor, and Iacocca went on to be an icon of American business,” said Krebs. “There’s a lesson we could use today.”