Lee Iacocca, who led Ford and saved Chrysler, dies at 94

Lee Iacocca in 1978

Lee Iacocca, the American automotive executive who led Ford Motor Company and saved floundering Chrysler Corporation, died Tuesday, July 2, in Bel Air, California, of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 94.

Bold and outspoken, Iacocca had his share of detractors, but he knew how to sell cars and motivate his employees. 

“He understood marketing,” industry analyst Maryann N. Keller told The Washington Post. “Using his own persuasive powers, he was able to get people to overlook the limitations of Chrysler automobiles, and he was able to get Congress to overlook the fact that the company really was in financial trouble… He made people believe in him.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Lido Anthony Iacocca was born October 15, 1924 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he learned the value of a strong work ethic. His father, Nicola, was a small business owner—most notably a hot dog vendor.

“The Depression turned me into a materialist,” Iacocca wrote in his 1984 book Iacocca: An Autobiography. “Years later, when I graduated from college, my attitude was: ‘Don’t bother me with philosophy. I want to make ten thousand a year by the time I’m 25, and then I want to be a millionaire.’”

Iacocca attempted to enlist into the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, but he was denied entry because of the rheumatic fever he contracted as a child. So he focused on getting a college education. After earning an engineering degree at Lehigh University in nearby Bethlehem, Iacocca went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering from Princeton.

Lee Iacocca
Ford
Lee Iacocca unveiling the Mustang

His formal education complete, Iacocca joined Ford Motor Company in 1946 as an engineering trainee, although both he and the company soon realized that his strengths were in sales and marketing. After a successful stint in sales, he moved on to product development and in 1960 was named Vice President and General Manager of the Ford Division. Iacocca’s major triumph was the iconic Mustang, released in April 1964. The wildly popular pony car landed him on the cover of both Time and Newsweek. The following year, Iacocca found himself managing the entire Ford car and truck programs.

Iacocca was also behind the wildly successful Continental Mk III, the Pinto program, and the front-wheel-drive Escort. His obvious knack for pushing through strong projects and marketing them effectively earned him the presidency of Ford in 1970. But by the end of the decade his relationship with Henry Ford II, the company founder’s grandson, had become combative. Ford fired him in July 1978.

It was Iacocca’s next challenge that made him a household name. He moved to Chrysler in 1979, tasked with the job of saving a company at the edge of bankruptcy. He secured massive loans from the Federal government and launched the new front-wheel-drive K-Car. The company not only paid back its loans—$1.2 billion plus interest—it did so seven years early.

“We at Chrysler borrow money the old-fashioned way: We pay it back,” Iacocca said at a press conference.

Riding the theme “The pride is back,” Chrysler’s financial outlook became stronger, thanks to the fast-selling K-cars and the wildly successful minivans built on the same platform and introduced for 1984. Not only was Iacocca the man making the deals, securing the loans and generally leading the company, he was the face of Chrysler, becoming the primary pitchman in print and on television.

Lee Iacocca unveils the Minivan in 1983
FCA

Iacocca was also an advocate for better care for patients with diabetes, the disease claimed his wife, Mary, in 1983.

He co-authored three best-selling books and spearheaded fundraising efforts to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and for his alma mater, Lehigh University. Iacocca declined an interim appointment to the senate, although he did advise governmental leaders from the president down.

In addition, Iacocca funded a venture capital fund with a focus on the gaming industry, and he had extensive holdings within the gaming world. Although it somewhat dimmed his star, he was part of irk Kirk Kerkorian’s failed hostile takeover of Chrysler in the mid-1990s.

No matter how you feel about Iacocca, he was rarely lukewarm about a project. And once he was in, he was all in.

“He’s like Babe Ruth,” retired Chrysler executive Bennett E. Bidwell told the New York Times. “He hit home runs and he struck out a lot. But he always filled the ballpark.”