Lee Iacocca, the auto executive who introduced the iconic Mustang at Ford in the 1960s and pulled Chrysler out of bankruptcy in the 1980s has died at age 94.
During a 32-year career in Detroit, Iacocca launched some of the best-selling and most beloved vehicles of all-time, including the minivan, the Chrysler K-car, and the Ford Escort. He also battled Japanese automakers in the 1970s and 1980s, accusing them of unfair trade practices.
The son of Italian immigrants, Iacocca reached a level of celebrity matched by few businessmen. During the 1980s, he starred in a series of TV ads with the catchphrase: “If you can find a better car, buy it!” At the height of his fame, Iacocca even appeared on an episode of the TV show Miami Vice.
After retiring, Iacocca wrote two best-selling business books and mused about running for President of the United States, but he will be best remembered as the cigar-chomping Chrysler executive who helped engineer one of the greatest corporate turnarounds ever.
In 1964, Iacocca introduced the first Ford Mustang and the public went wild. The success of the Mustang landed Iacocca on the cover of Time magazine and helped him become President of the Ford Motor Company at age 46. But after several clashes with Ford’s Board of Directors, Iacocca was fired by then Chairman Henry Ford II in 1978, and he reluctantly moved onto new challenges at Chrysler Corp.
In 1979, Chrysler was buried under $5 billion of debt. It had a bloated manufacturing system, a reputation for making gas-guzzlers, and militant unions to contend with. When the banks turned him down for loans, Iacocca successfully lobbied the federal government in Washington, D.C. to approve $1.5 billion in loan guarantees that kept the automaker going.
Iacocca managed to get huge concessions from auto unions, closed 20 manufacturing plants, laid off thousands of employees, and introduced a new lineup of vehicles, notably the K-car. The strategy worked. The K-cars — Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant — were basic but affordable, fuel-efficient, and had seating for six people. In 1981, they captured 20% of the market for compact cars. In 1983, Chrysler paid back its government loans with interest. In 1984, Iacocca introduced the minivan and created a new market that helped the company return to profitability.
Iacocca passed away Wednesday morning in his Los Angeles home. He was 94, and will be remembered as one of the auto industry’s most important figures.