Without the bold and gregarious Lee Iacocca, the automotive landscape would likely look quite different than it does today. The man commonly referred to as “Father of the Mustang” and who oversaw Chrysler’s front-wheel drive fueled return from the dead in the early ‘80s passed away yesterday at the age of 94 years.
The son of Italian immigrants, Iacocca went to work at Ford Motor Company a year after World War II. By 1960, he was named VP and general manager of the Ford Division, rising to President of the place in December 1970. Along the way, he was instrumental in the introduction of several landmark vehicles, chief of which was the Mustang. Despite posting a $2 billion profit in 1978, he was unceremoniously fired from the Blue Oval after clashes with the man whose name was on the building – Henry Ford II.
Iacocca took his verve and, most importantly, his ideas to Chrysler. At the time, the Pentastar was wallowing in financial losses and product recalls. It didn’t hurt that many Iacocca loyalists were also hired by Chrysler, such as Hal Sperlich. Determined to save the company, a government bailout in the form of loan guarantees was arranged which provided the funds to develop a machine that ultimately became the K-Car.
These front-drive vehicles went on to massive success and provided such an infusion of cash that Chrysler paid off its government loans several years early. Rubbing more salt in the wound, the nice Reliant automobiles were based on design concepts Iacocca and team had previously pitched at Ford, only to be soundly struck down at that company. As gearheads, we know that the Magic Wagons were quickly (and, in most cases, poorly) copied by competitors including Ford.
Let’s not forget that Iacocca also led the purchase of American Motors in 1987, a move that would bring the Jeep brand into the fold, a decision that still has serious positive impacts for the company today.
Lee Iacocca was also known as a master pitchman, taking to the airwaves in a series of commercials for Chrysler. Delivering the phrase “If you can find a better car, buy it” was a key talking point in the confidence the company had in its new products. Iacocca’s no-nonsense speaking style was used in Chrysler ads right up until his retirement. The company reprised his services in 2005, shrewdly pairing him with polar-opposite celebrities like Snoop Dogg in a new round of television ads. At the time, Iacocca asked that his fee be donated to diabetes research.