The day before yesterday, on July 2, 2019, America lost arguably the best- known pitch man in the automotive business and arguably Detroit’s most powerful, ingenious, and innovative executives. Lee Iacocca was the only executive to head two of Detroit’s three top automotive manufacturers. Best known for developing the FORD MUSTANG and PINTO in the 1960s, and for reviving Chrysler in the 1980s, the story of this Depression-era kid born of Italian immigrants is one of our nation’s great success stories.
Born in Allentown, PA in 1924, Lido “Lee” Anthony Iacocca” was the son of Nicola Iacocca and Antonietta Perrotta, who owned and operated Yocco’s Hot Dogs in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in industrial engineering and won the Wallace Memorial Fellowship, which allowed him to attend Princeton. From there he launched his lifetime career in the automotive industry, getting his first job at Ford in 1946 as an engineer. He was 22.
Shortly after he was hired, he asked to be moved from engineering to sales and marketing. A real “people person,” the change would serve him well throughout his career. He devised and launched Ford’s 1956 campaign, “Twenty-percent down, $56 a month for three years.” The concept caught on like wildfire and Lee was plucked up and elevated to Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn.
In November 1960, he was named vice president and general manager of Ford and in 1965, promoted to vice president of Ford’s Car and Truck Group. In 1967, he became executive vice president and in 1970, president of Ford Motor Company.
Lee was instrumental in the design of the Ford Mustang, the Continental Mark III, the Ford Escort and the revival of the Mercury brand in the 1960s, introducing the Mercury Cougar and Mercury Marquis. He saw the need for an American made, small, fuel-efficient, lightweight car for under $2,000 and assembled Ford’s team of designers to produce the Ford Pinto, which came out in 1971. This change in direction from large, gas-guzzling cars changed the course of the industry. (Ford Pintos made until 1976 were recalled for safety concerns and a protected fuel tank was designed against possible fire in the event of a rear-end collision on subsequent production.) Lee would take with him concepts he tried, but failed, to introduce at Ford when, in 1978, he was fired in a fit of rage by Henry Ford II — despite the fact that Ford posted an unprecedented $2 billion profit that very same year — and took over the helm at Chrysler. These were the highly successful K car and Chrysler minivans.
Chrysler was in bad shape when Iacocca came on board. The auto manufacturer was on the verge of going out of business, despite having been forced to sell its European division to Peugeot. Complications resulting from recalls of the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare — cars that Iacocca maintained should never have been built — further weighing down the financial buoyancy of the drowning car company.
Lee’s first success at Chrysler was launching the mini-max project Ford II had quashed, introduced the highly successful Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager to compete with the Toyota Minivan. He introduced the front-wheel- drive Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon to compete with the VW Rabbit. They became instant hits, selling more than 300,000 in their debut year.
It was not enough. In 1979 Lee successfully approached Congress for a loan guarantee that bailed out Chrysler. The deal meant reducing costs and abandoning the development of the turbine engine after 20 years of development. Continuing its upward surge in overall sales was the Chrysler K- Car line of compact cars, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, which were introduced in 1981, right in the midst of the 1980-1982 Recession. Inexpensive, small, and efficient, these front-wheel-drive cars sold fast and enabled the company to re-introduce its big flagship model, the Chrysler
Imperial, which became the platform for introducing the company’s the newest technologies, including the fully electronic fuel injection and an all-digital dashboard. These successes enabled Chrysler to pay back the government seven years earlier than expected.
It seemed that nothing could stop Lee now. In 1987, he led Chrysler in the acquisition of AMC and Jeep became one of the most profitable divisions in the Chrysler family. The Grand Cherokee had almost been completed by the time Chrysler took over AMC and that model would redefine the brand. Eagle, however, which was part of the AMC acquisition, was already doomed and did not survive under Chrysler.
JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE
Lee Iacocca was identified with some of the great ad campaigns in automotive history and his pitch, “The pride is back,” which signaled the turnaround of the Chrysler, made people identify with the car manufacturing giant much like Rocky, the underdog in the movies, fights the odds to triumph. With his inimitable marketing talents and on-camera presence, Lee voiced his own trademark phrase for Chrysler, “If you can find a better car, buy it.” The pitch sold countless cars practically on the strength of that one line alone.
“A Tribute to Lee Iacocca,” by John and Laurie Wiles. Copyright © 2019 by John and Laurie Wiles, Pinehurst, N.C. First North American serial rights to The Yonkers Tribune.
Lee retired in 1992 and like so many success stories, Chrysler took a nosedive after he left. In 1995, Kirk Kerkorian launched a hostile takeover of the company, which ultimately failed, but Kerkorian and Chrysler made a five- year agreement that included a gag order preventing Lee from speaking publicly about Chrysler. What a betrayal of the man who had been the voice of Detroit for so many years!
Not to be defeated, in 2005 he returned as the company’s pitchman, promoting the “Employee Pricing Plus” program and reprising the “If you can find a better car campaign” slogan. His new contract in 2005 included a $1 donation for each Chrysler vehicle sold between July 1st and December 31st to the Iacocca Foundation for Type 1 Diabetes Research. His first wife, Mary McCleary, had died of the disease in May 1983.
When Chrysler’s fate was sadly clear, Lee, who had been out of the loop for many years by that time, was quoted in Newsweek magazine in April 2009 as saying:
“This is a sad day for me. It pains me to see my old company, which has meant so much to America, on the ropes. But Chrysler has been in trouble before, and we got through it, and I believe they can do it again. If they’re smart, they’ll bring together a consortium of workers, plant managers and dealers to come up with real solutions. These are the folks on the front lines, and they’re the key to survival. Let’s face it, if your car breaks down, you’re not going to take it to the White House to get fixed. But, if your company breaks down, you’ve got to go to the experts on the ground, not the bureaucrats. Every day I talk to dealers and managers, who are passionate and full of ideas. No one wants Chrysler to survive more than they do. So I’d say to the Obama administration, don’t leave them out. Put their passion and ideas to work.”
Chrysler declared bankruptcy and Lee lost part of his pension and a guaranteed company car during his lifetime. Ownership of the new company was assumed by the UAW, Fiat and the governments of US and Canada.
In 1984, he wrote his autobiography, which became the bestselling hardcover of 1984 and 1985. He wrote two more books, Talking Straight and Where Have All the Leaders Gone (2007). In his last book, Iacocca, a Republican, wrote:
“Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, ‘Stay the course.’ Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!’”
Lee spent the final chapter of his life involved in politics, activism and philanthropy. He died two days ago, July 2nd, at his home in Bel Air at the age of 94 from complications from Parkinson’s Disease. A true American, this son of poor Italian immigrants made good — and earned his place in the annals of history as one of our nation’s greatest success stories.
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“A Tribute to Lee Iacocca,” by John and Laurie Wiles. Copyright © 2019 by John and Laurie Wiles, Pinehurst, N.C. First North American serial rights to the Yonkers Tribune.