The news of Lee Iacocca’s passing on July 2 was rather sad for this car buff. Lee died at the ripe old age of 94 and was driven to his final resting place in a Chrysler hearse. Especially fitting for the past President and Chairman of Chrysler Corporation.
There is so much to say and learn about Lee Iacocca that it would take volumes. We suggest you read one of his many books, either by him or about him. Where Have all the Leaders Gone?,and I Gotta Tell you: Speeches are a couple that come to mind. Briefly, Lee was born in Allentown, PA to Italian immigrants who had settled in Pennsylvania’s steel-production belt. They ran a restaurant by the name of Yocco’s Hot Dogs. Somewhere it’s written that Lee was christened “Lido” because he was conceived during his parents’ honeymoon in the Lido district of Venice (although he denied it). Lee graduated with honors from Allentown High School, attended Lehigh University and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. He won the Wallace Memorial Fellowship and went to Princeton University where he studied politics and plastics.
There was something about Lee Iacocca-Lido Anthony Iacocca-that fascinated me. I always got a kick out of him and enjoyed watching his rise at Chrysler. You had to love this guy. Not only was he responsible for the invent of the ever-popular Ford Mustang, and not so great Pinto, he also resurrected (the first time) Chrysler Corporation and put the infamous Minivan on the road.
Lee joined Ford Motor Company after a brief stint in engineering in 1946, then asked to be transferred to sales and marketing. He became famous for his “56” campaign, offering loans on 1956 models with a 20 percent down payment and $56 in monthly payments for three years. He moved quickly up the ranks, named V.P. and General Manager of the Ford Division. In 1965, he became Ford’s V.P., car and truck group, in 1967 executive V.P and in December 1970, President. After participating in the design of several successful Ford products, including Mustang, Continental Mark III, and Ford Escort, Lee also helped revive the Mercury brand, introducing the Mercury Cougar and Marquis. Unfortunately, Lee clashed with Henry Ford II and was fired in 1978, despite the fact Ford posted a $2 billion profit for the year!
During the 1980s, Lee went over to Chrysler as its CEO, serving as President of Chrysler from 1978, and as Chairman from 1979, until he retired in 1992. Chrysler strongly courted Iacocca at a time when they desperately needed a plan to survive. Lee was the CEO who ‘saved’ the Corporation when they were just about to go out of business. The company had sold the loss-making Chrysler Europe division to Peugeot in hopes of generating much needed cash. They were losing millions already in North America largely due to recalls of its Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare. Lee would declare that these two vehicles should never have been built. He arrived at Chrysler shortly after the intro of the subcompact front-wheel-drive Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. These two vehicles became instant hits, selling over 300,000 units each in their first year.
According to Lido, he was destined to be the CEO of Chrysler Corporation and would say his sir name was proof: I-A-C-O-C-C-A, which stood for “I am Chairman of Chrysler Corporation.”
Lee then began rebuilding the Mini-Max; a restyled version of the minivan, which Toyota was selling well in Asia and Latin America. Iacocca brought from Ford the mini-max project which in 1983 became the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, leading the industry in sales for 25 years. Henry Ford II had no use for the mini-max at Ford and doomed the project. The man behind the vehicle, Hal Sperlich had also been fired by Ford a few months before Lee. Then hired by Chrysler, Sperlich and Iacocca would make history.
In 1979, Chrysler desperately needed cash. Lee went to the United States Congress and requested a loan guarantee. To obtain the loan, Chrysler was required to reduce costs and abandon some longstanding projects. This included the turbine engine which had been in development for 20 years and was ready for consumer production. The company quickly turned around and the government-backed loans were repaid seven years earlier than expected.
The first K-Car line was released in 1981, along with the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. These compact cars were based on design proposals rejected by Ford during Lee’s years there. During the recession in 1980-82, these small, efficient and inexpensive front-wheel-drive cars sold quickly.
Chrysler also re-introduced the large Imperial as Chrysler’s flagship, complete with all the latest technologies, such as fully electronic injection and all-digital dashboard. In 1987, Lee bought AMC, desperately wanting the Jeep division. In 1992-93, the Grand Cherokee would be introduced at Chrysler; the same year Lee retired.
Some may remember a series of commercials regarding the ad campaign throughout the 1980s, in which Iacocca appeared. The theme: “The Pride is Back,” highlighted the corporation’s turnaround. His trademark phrase: “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
Lee had strong opinions on saving the auto industry: “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!”
Of course, Chrysler Corporation would face other hardships in its attempts to stay in business. In 2009, bankruptcy loomed, and Lee reflected on his time there: “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.”\
One of my favorite things about Lido was his ever-present cigar. In fact, Don Diego Cigars chose him as its face in a series of ads-“A Man and His Cigar.” Although I never had the pleasure of an interview, those who did say it was always “interesting,” as he seemed to know what reporters were looking for. He’d answer many of the media’s questions in a single, run-on sentence. Then take a puff of his cigar! It’s been written that when photographers took pictures of Lee, he would ask them not to use any with him smoking the cigar! He would get letters, he said, telling him how bad it is for kids to see him smoking!
A savvy guy, Lee understood the power of the media, the personal image and that his name was by then, a household word. Forever linked with saving Chrysler and restoring Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, Lee was an icon. And as those who knew him have observed, he never seemed to be down, even during the most challenging times.
At Lee’s funeral service, his daughter Kathryn Iacocca Hentz in her tribute to her father noted, "to my father every life mattered. Every person had value.”
Why couldn’t Lido have run for president? No doubt, many wish he had.
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