Lee Iacocca: 1924-2019
Industry Legend Was Responsible for Mustang Introduction and Chrysler Revival
Lee Iacocca, the legendary automotive executive responsible for saving Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s and inventing the pony car class with the Ford Mustang in 1964, has died.
Lido Anthony "Lee" Iacocca was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on October 15, 1924, the son of Italian immigrants Nicola Iacocca and Antonietta Perrotta. He graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in industrial engineering, then joined Ford Motor Company in 1946, working in engineering, then sales and marketing.
Iacocca became the company's vice president and general manager of the Ford division in 1960, where he championed the development (between September 1962 and March 1964) and introduction (April 1964) of the now-legendary Ford Mustang. Iacocca then moved on to become the vice president of the Ford car and truck group in 1965, then Ford executive vice president in 1967 and Ford president in 1970.
Among myriad successes, Lee Iacocca was also implicated in the disastrous recall of the 1971-1976 Ford Pinto, which Ford executives may have known would catch fire in certain crashes. The Pinto fiasco and Iacocca's feuds with Henry Ford II led to his firing from Ford in 1978; shortly thereafter he moved to Chrysler Corporation.
Iacocca became president of Chrysler in September 1979 and began an aggressive revitalization process. He reconfigured the way Chrysler sold vehicles to dealers, meaning the company would only produce vehicles that dealers ordered—before this, the car company itself would maintain an inventory that often languished if dealers weren't selling them. Now, the onus was on the dealers to stock vehicles in the inventory.
Notably, Iacocca took just $1 for his salary in his first year as president of Chrysler Corporation. He also oversaw the layoffs of several white- and blue-collar workers, replaced executives he felt were poor at their jobs, and brought in analysts and financial experts to help the company out of ruin.
He courted a loan guarantee from the U.S. government to the tune of $1.5 billion in 1980 and $1.2 billion in 1981. Between 1979 and 1983, Chrysler went from a loss of $1.1 billion to a profit of $500 million. Chrysler paid back the loans early in 1983, and Iacocca began personally appearing in the company's commercials with the tagline, "If you can find a better car, buy it."
In addition to financial acuity, Iacocca was also known for understanding what customers wanted, even if customers themselves couldn't name it. He was the man behind the Plymoth Reliant and Dodge Aries, midsize "K cars" that boasted the interior room of their fullsize predecessors while achieving impressive fuel economy and comparable performance on the road.
The K platform was later optimized for what was perhaps Chrysler's most successful and notable product ever: the minivan. Longer than the Reliant/Aries platform siblings but substantially shorter than contemporary station wagons from other manufacturers, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager boasted plenty of interior room thanks to their front-wheel-drive transaxle that permitted a low, flat passenger floor. In 1984, their first model year on the market, the Caravan and Voyager sold more than 209,000 units, trading at significantly higher margins than their passenger car siblings.
Lee Iacocca was also known for the Chrysler Corporation purchase of AMC in 1987, taking over the beleaguered automaker from French manufacturer Renault. The AMC deal also included the Jeep brand, and Chrysler's stewardship brought on such legends as the Grand Cherokee in 1993 and the Wrangler TJ in 1997. Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992.
Following his retirement, he focused efforts on the Iacocca Family Foundation, which Lee himself started in 1984 to fund diabetes research in honor of his late wife Mary. Iacocca served on the board of the foundation until his death.
Iacocca reportedly died at his home in suburban Los Angeles, according to Jalopnik. His contributions to the automotive industry cannot be ignored, and his marketing and engineering prowess will surely be remembered for decades or centuries to come.