Obituary: Lee Iacocca – 1924-2019

There are a few people whom I would bestow the lofty title of "hero" to.

In this industry that is my beat, the number of "heroes" are few. They earn this title for achieving extraordinary feats in this business. This particular hero accomplished exactly that multiple times.

Lido Anthony Iacocca hailed from the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania a son of immigrant parents. From there, he graduated Lehigh University with a degree in Industrial Engineering. This opened the door into Princeton University under the Wallace Memorial Fellowship, where he received his Master's degree.

After his studies were complete, Iacocca began his career at Ford as an engineer in 1946. He would shift over to the sales and marketing side where he found initial success. One campaign he began in the Philadelphia sales district became a national sales drive. That earned him the invitation to move to Dearborn and a chance to rise through the ranks.

By 1960, Iacocca became vice president and general manager of the Ford division. In this position, Iacocca would drive an even greater success that had resonance throughout the company. On his watch, he saw the launch of the Mustang. His work involved the design development for this iconic pony car. This would be his greatest achievement among many, thanks to initial sales of the Mustang.

Other achievements made by Iacocca while he was at Ford included the revival of the Mercury brand in the late 1960s, the introduction of the Continental Mark III for Lincoln, and the European Ford Escort Mark I.

The 1970s became a challenge for not only Ford, but for Iacocca. The introduction of the Ford Pinto yielded a design flaw that would prove fatal. The placement of the gas tank at the extreme rear of the subcompact car would be a negative legacy for Iacocca at Ford.

However, Iacocca’s campaign for a front-drove platform that would include a minivan proved to his biggest challenge against Chairman Henry Ford II. The grandson of the company’s founder felt that the new platform would not work for Ford’s future and dismissed the program as a waste of the company’s time. A few years after the rejection of the front-drive program, Iacocca was fired at Ford.

After years at Ford, Iacocca was soon presented with an opportunity to turn an ailing rival in Highland Park around. Chrysler called Iacocca to invite him to take over the reigns of the company. It would prove to be an even bigger challenge than any of his efforts at Ford, but Iacocca was up for the task.

It began with asking for Federal loan guarantees to keep Chrysler going through a series of new product launches in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Included in these plans were the front-drive platform rejected by Iacocca’s old boss at Ford. Iacocca was joined by some of his closest allies at Ford over at Highland Park to implement the new vehicle program as a way to turn Chrysler around.

Not only did Chrysler receive the loans, they paid them back seven years before they were due. They did so thanks to the K-Car platform and their variants. They did so by introducing the minivan in the fall of 1983. Chrysler was saved, thanks to Iacocca’s vision of a leaner company that put out vehicles the customers really wanted at the right time.

Iacocca rarely stepped out in front of the camera when he was at Ford. At Chrysler, he drove the message home challenging the American public to not only take a look at Chrysler’s vehicles – but to compare, and, eventually, own them.

After the success of the minivans, Iacocca tried his hand at expanding Chrysler's footprint beyond the traditional Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge brands. His Italian heritage opened the door to a brief ownership of Lamborghini, as well as securing a partnership with Maserati.

One of his masterstrokes was the acquisition of American Motors from Renault. Iacocca saw the biggest prize from that acquisition was Jeep. The brand was on the rise as the driver of the proliferation of the SUV, thanks to the Cherokee lineup. From 1987 onward, Jeep would be Chrysler’s shining asset that would attract future mergers and acquisitions by Daimler and Fiat.

Iacocca retired in 1992. Though the industry felt that they have not seen the last of him. They were right. In 1995, Iacocca joined Kirk Kerkorian on his hostile bid for Chrysler as a supporter. Eventually, Daimler would merge with Chrysler forming the so-called "merger of equals." Some of said that Iacocca made a mistake by backing Kerkorian instead of just sitting on the sidelines in retirement. That is one thing one should never tell Iacocca – ever!

Yet, the people at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles still revere Iacocca as their hero – a savior during one of their darkest times. Respect was given to him, as the late Sergio Marchionne elected not to occupy Iacocca's massive suite at FCA’s Auburn Hills, Michigan headquarters.

Why do I consider Lee Iacocca a hero? He emboldened one company with a winning product that became an icon for over five decades. Then, Iacocca saved another company from oblivion by securing loan guarantees by the Federal government, introducing a new line of automobiles, and paying back those loans ensuring the fiscal security of the company for years to come.

Let me salute this hero. I hope you join me in doing so. Consider what Iacocca has accomplished since his entry into the automotive industry in 1946. You may be driving a byproduct of his work right now. Give your horn a toot for the man who brought you that car.

Photo courtesy of the Ford Motor Company

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