Evans reflects on the life of legendary auto executive Lee Iacocca, who passed away in July…
LEE IACOCCA 1924-2019
Remembering an industry icon
As I type these words, it is July 11 (such are magazine lead times). Yesterday, at St Hugo of the Hills Church, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, friends and relatives gathered to celebrate the life of Lido “Lee” Anthony Iacocca. The former Chrysler CEO and Ford Motor Company executive passed away on July 2 at his home in Bel Air, California. He was 92 years old.
Iacocca joined Ford Motor Company in 1946 as an engineer, but quickly found this career path wasn’t for him, so he switched to sales and marketing, for which he proved to have a natural talent. By the mid-Fifties Iacocca was district sales manager for Ford in Philadelphia, and was credited for creating a unique sales promotion dubbed the “56 for 56” plan, whereby buyers could place a 20% down payment on a 1956 Ford and pay instalments of $56 for three years. It proved so successful, that the plan went national, thrusting Iacocca into the spotlight. By the end of 1960, Iacocca was Ford Division President and quickly set about creating some pizazz in the contemporary vehicle line-up.
He approved adding fastback rooflines to the full-size Fords, leading to the Starliner and sporty Galaxie XLs. He green-lit a sporty Sprint version of the compact, utilitarian Falcon and was instrumental in spurring Ford’s “Total Performance” campaign of the Sixties, which culminated not only in a range of sporty cars but wins in a whole host of motorsport events, including Ford’s famous 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966.
Perhaps Iacocca’s most celebrated achievement at Ford however, was the launch of the Mustang in April 1964. In concept, the idea was to create a mass-market sporty car that borrowed much of the Falcon’s engineering so it could be sold at a low price ($2368).
Projected annual volume was targeted at 100,000 units, but such was the appeal of the Mustang that in that first, extra-long model year (April 1964-September 1965), more than 680,000 Mustangs were produced, aided by a slick marketing campaign, a range of options and styling which captivated the public. Iacocca also spearheaded the introduction of the 1967 Mercury Cougar (a more upmarket Mustang stablemate), the personal luxury Continental MK III the following year and by 1970 he had been promoted to President of Ford Motor Company, succeeding Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen.
Iacocca’s tenure at the top of the Blue Oval ranks proved to be challenging — the sub compact Pinto introduced under his watch became a political hot potato due to claims of fires resulting from rear-end mpacts, and while he was able to oversee the introduction of products such as the Mustang II and Granada (that were suitably timed for the Seventies and sold well) he became increasingly at odds with Ford Chairman Henry Ford II.
In 1978, Iacocca was unceremoniously fired by Ford, but found a new calling as CEO at Chrysler Corporation. By that time, Detroit’s number three automaker was floundering and on the verge of bankruptcy. With Iacocca on board, Chrysler underwent a ground-up restructuring. The company’s European operations were sold to Peugeot Talbot and a wholesale product plan was instigated, ushering in an entirely new generation of front-wheel drive Chrysler products beginning with the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant K-Car twins in 1981. To help get the company back on track, Iacocca was able to convince Congress to provide loan guarantees while the company restructured and took $1.2 billion of an available $1.5 billion in 1979, repaying the money back in three years.
During his time at Chrysler, Iacocca became a celebrity CEO and an American folk hero, famous for his commercials such as “if you can find a better car, buy it!” and “The New Chrysler Corporation, we don’t want to be the biggest, just the best.” He also released his best-selling autobiography, which he co-wrote with William Novak. At Chrysler, Iacocca was also able to bring to market key products that had been conceived at Ford, including the minivan, which emerged as the K-car based 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, along with the sporty Daytona/Laser and other seemingly endless variations of the basic K-car theme that ran from low-priced subcompacts, all the way to near-luxury limousines and ultimately the outrageous Dodge Viper.
Iacocca retired as Chrysler Chairman in 1992 and three years later tried to assist in an unsuccessful takeover of the company by billionaire Kirk Kervorkian. Always outspoken and larger than life, Iacocca cast a huge shadow on the American automotive industry, but at his funeral, Monsignor Howard Lincoln, of Iacocca’s home parish, Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert, California, said that despite his ability to move mountains, he was always a family man at heart. His youngest daughter Kathryn was quoted as saying that no matter his busy work schedule, her dad “was always home for dinner” and that “every interaction mattered”.
Lee Iacocca, second left, with the one millionth Mustang.