We are sad to announce that automotive legend and former President and CEO of Chrysler Corporation, Lido “Lee” Iacocca has passed away at the age of 94. Known as the father of the Ford Mustang and the man who saved Chrysler Corporation, Iacocca was a mover and shaker in the automotive industry. While some of his career circled around controversy, he was well respected throughout the industry.
Iacocca was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on October 15th, 1924 to Italian immigrants. His father Nicola and mother Antonietta operated “Yocco’s Hot Dogs,” a restaurant started by Lee’s uncle which is still open today. Lee graduated from Allentown High School in 1942 and attended Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There he was a member of Tau Beta Pi (an engineering honor society) and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. Upon his graduation, Lee won a scholarship to Princeton University, where he took classes on politics and plastics. Soon after, he began his automotive career at Ford Motor Company.
After joining Ford Motor Company as an engineer in August 1946, Iacocca was moved to the sales and marketing division. He worked as the Philadelphia District Assistant Sales Manager and quickly gained recognition for his “56 for 56” campaign, in which offered loans on 1956 model year Fords for $56/mo payments for three years with 20% down. The campaign went national, and Iaccoca was sent to Ford’s Dearborn headquarters. On November 10th, 1960, Iaccoca was named Vice-President and General Manager of the Ford Division. He then was promoted to Vice-President of Car and Truck Group in 1965, before becoming Executive Vice-President in 1967. Three years later, he was named President of Ford Motor Company.
During his tenure at Ford, Iacocca helped the company to several successful vehicle launches. Nameplates such as the Ford Mustang, Lincoln Continental Mark III, Mercury Cougar, and the Mercury Marquis, were some of the more popular vehicles released under his watch. It was publicly known, that Iacocca would clash with Henry Ford II and two disliked each other. Henry Ford II, fired Iaccoca on July 13th, 1978 even though the company posted a $2 billion profit that year.
On November 2nd, 1978, Iaccoca was hired as the President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Chrysler Corporation. At the time, the company was in significant financial distress and was in danger of filing bankruptcy. Iacocca approached the United States Congress in 1979, offering a loan guarantee, which added $1.5 billion to Chrysler funds to save the company and its suppliers and to allow Chrysler Corporation to build a new lineup featuring front-wheel-drive vehicles that he and former Ford Motor Company employee Hal Sperlich, had presented to Henry Ford II who was against the idea. Those vehicles were the front-wheel-drive K-Cars and what became known as the minivan.
By 1981, the Chrysler Corporation edged into profitability. This allowed Chrysler to pay back its government loans in full in 1983, several years ahead of schedule. In 1984, Chrysler Corporation made more than $2.4 billion, which was a record for the company. Iacocca became a household name during the mid-1980s, with his Chrysler television advertisements, in which he promised giving anyone who test drove a Chrysler Corporation product $50 if they ended up buying a similar car from any of the company’s competitors, as well as using the tagline “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
He also led the acquisition of the American Motor Corporation (AMC) for Chrysler in 1987. This deal not only saved many of the jobs at AMC but brought the legendary Jeep brand and short-lived Eagle brands to the Chrysler portfolio. One of the vehicles AMC had completed and that Iaccoca wanted, was their replacement for the Jeep Cherokee, which would later be named the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Iacocca then began spending Chrysler Corporation’s surplus of cash on different things. The acquisition of companies like Lamborghini, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., FinanceAmerica, and Electrospace Systems which after the AMC acquisition put a lot of burden on Chrysler’s financial status. With projects like the Chrysler Technical Center (CTC) in Auburn Hills, Michigan and a new generation of vehicles in the works at the company, the board of directors put pressure on Lee to find a successor and retire. Iacocca announced that veteran General Motors (GM) executive Robert Eaton would succeed him after 1992. Eaton would take the company into the “merger of equals” only a few years later with Daimler-Benz, almost destroying the company. It was a decision Iaccoca said he regretted in his 2007 book.
During his career, Iacocca wrote several books, including his 1984 autobiography entitled “Iacocca: An Autobiography.” The book was the best selling non-fiction hardback book of 1984 and 1985. Following the death of his first wife Mary from diabetes in 1983, he became an active supporter of research for the disease. Iacocca donated the proceeds of the book’s sales to diabetes research. He also wrote “Talking Straight” with co-author Sonny Kleinfeld in 1988, on the innovation and creativity of Americans. With his last book entitled “Where Have All the Leaders Gone? which was co-written with Catherine Whitney in 2007.
Iacocca also had his hand in several businesses after his tenure with Chrysler, that including in the gambling industry, restaurant industry, and even in the electric bicycle industry. There is no doubt that Iacocca left his mark on every venture he partook in.
FCA has just released this statement on Iacocca’s passing.
July 2, 2019 , Auburn Hills, Mich. – 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.