In the past few days, the late Lee Iacocca was named a "visionary" and one of the "last automotive tycoon[s]." All of these were apt to describe a man who drove change in the automotive industry while saving entire companies and brands.
His legacy is still being felt today.
To further honor the legacy of the late Lee Iacocca, I created a special "my favorites" list of the vehicles he had a hand in bringing to market. These were vehicles that were given his touch towards the resounding success each one had garnered in their time. Their resonance is felt today by owners, collectors, and enthusiasts alike.
Without further ado, let’s get right to it…
1967-1970 FORD MUSTANG: Iacocca celebrated and complained about the first two-and-a-half years of the Mustang’s success. There was a sense that he was not satisfied with one of his greatest contributions to the automotive industry. While early Mustangs were flying out of dealerships in record numbers, the design team at Ford went to work on a bigger, sleeker, and more compelling redesign. Just like in April of 1964, jaws dropped in the fall of 1966 when the redesign arrived at Ford showrooms. The 1967 Mustang sparked even more dropped jaws with a completely up-to-date look inside and out. It opened the door to a slew of performance options that would push the Mustang’s profile even further. By 1969, the 429 cubic-inch V8 would serve as the pinnacle of Mustang performance for decades to come. But, more memorable was the Mach 1 and its choice of big V8s that would induce the level of excitement on this side of Carroll Shelby own creations. These are the Mustangs that cemented its iconic status for life.
1969-1971: LINCOLN CONTINENTAL MARK III: Go ahead and "put a Rolls-Royce grille on a Thunderbird!" That was what Iacocca told Gene Bordinat, Ford’s head of design, in the late 1960s. If it was as simple as that, but Iacocca understood that developing a personal luxury car to compete with the Cadillac Eldorado would be a major undertaking if certain measures were in place to cut development costs towards higher profitability per unit. The highly successful Ford Thunderbird of the late 1960s and the Lincoln Continental would serve as the basis for Ford’s answer to the Eldorado. The result was a gain in sales that slightly bested the Cadillac by a few hundred units in 1969. The personal luxury coupe began a tradition that evolved the "Rolls-Royce grille" into Lincoln’s overall design for decades to come. It also set the course of a battle between the Mark Series and the Eldorado for personal luxury coupe supremacy until 1998, when the Mark VIII was discontinued.
1982-1988 CHRYSLER LeBARON: In the fall of 1980, Iacocca and his Chrysler team introduced the K-Car front-drive platform to the world in the form of two humble cars – the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. Based on his past efforts at Ford, Iacocca had a penchant for creating luxury vehicles that would entertain their customers. The twist to this plot was the idea that by saving development and production costs towards ensuring the payback of the Federally-backed loans, it would be best to create these new luxury models on a common platform across the company. Though some balked at the idea of the 1982 Chrysler LeBaron and its relationship to the meek Plymouth Reliant, it did start its own legacy by re-introducing the convertible back into the American consciousness. When you look at the rest of the LeBaron lineup, you had padded landau roofs and fake woodgrain siding. But, it was the LeBaron convertible that brought customers into Chrysler-Plymouth dealers. That, and the new turbocharged 2.2-liter engine.
1984-1990 DODGE CARAVAN AND PLYMOUTH VOYAGER: It has been stated many times how Chrysler’s minivan duo changed the way families were transported. Though it was a byproduct of the front-drive platform that saved Chrysler from oblivion, the innovations stemming from developing the minivan from this platform set may benchmarks that are still not met by its competitors today. The original vehicle was simple: four-cylinder power that carried up to seven people and can fit inside a standard garage at home. It also carried an uncut piece of plywood – 4-feet-by-8-feet – flat on the floor behind the front seats. You had to take the second and third-row seats out if you had to carry home those sheets of plywood (Stow N’Go would come a couple of decades later). This was a starting point for a new genre of automobile. But, Chrysler would not rest on its laurels, as it enhanced the minivan with adding turbocharged and V6 power, adding a Chrysler version, and launching class-leading innovations in its 35-year run.
1984-1993 DODGE DAYTONA AND CHRYSLER LASER: At the same time the minivans arrived at showrooms, my attention was focused on the sports coupe that was introduced alongside of it. The K-car platform was proven to be versatile and flexible. It came as no surprise that Chrysler would develop a competitor to the Toyota Celica and Fox-body Ford Mustang in one fell swoop. The Daytona/Laser emphasized the 2.2-liter turbocharged engine as the choice for this coupe. In order for enthusiasts to be engaged with this duo, the turbo was further massaged for more horsepower beyond the original 142. The coupe continued in the lineup into the 1990s with updates inside and out and under the hood. However, it would also be outshined by its competitors. That did not diminish how the Daytona (and Laser) would leave their mark as prime examples of what Chrysler can do with a flexible platform.
1985-1995 CHRYSLER LeBARON COUPE/CONVERTIBLE/GTS: These three body styles are not usually grouped together. With the exception of the name, these three LeBarons signify a maturation of the K-Car-based platform. The GTS would have been welcomed in today’s marketplace because the mid-sized four-door hatchback showed how Chrysler dared to create a “European” touring sedan. All I can say is how handsome it was. Two years later, the new generation LeBaron coupe and convertible arrived on the scene. The latter was significant because Chrysler was able to develop the convertible from the ground up as a droptop, instead of a chopped coupe with a folding roof. Like the Daytona, their collective calling card was the turbocharged engine – the best way to enjoy any of the three LeBarons. I always enjoyed the coupe, since it confirmed its mature status above the Daytona. It is a tough choice, but if I had to pick one K-Car-based vehicle that would be my favorite – I’ll pick all three Chryslers.
1993-1998 JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE: With just a few months away from retirement, Iacocca had one more major debut to do. In 1987, Jeep was part of Chrysler’s acquisition of American Motors from Renault. If you ask anyone, the brand was the main reason for this transaction. The growth of the Jeep lineup was due to another consumer trend that was evolving in the late 1980s – the proliferation of the SUV. While this was the first Jeep to debut under Chrysler’s watch, the truth is that this larger Jeep model was in development under Renault before Chrysler came knocking on the door at AMC. They even saw this as the replacement of the popular XJ Cherokee. This was to debut towards the end of the 1980s, but Iacocca wanted to get the second-generation minivans out into the marketplace first. Was it too late for the ZJ Grand Cherokee? Nope. It came at the right time when the SUV was in full flight across the country.
All Photos by Randy Stern