Lee Iacocca, 1924–2019
The master salesman who saved Chrysler
When Lee Iacocca took over Chrysler in 1978, he had already made his mark on Detroit. As a Ford executive in the 1960s, Iacocca was the driving force behind the best-selling Mustang. Then, as company president, he kept Ford in the black amid rising gasoline prices and increasing foreign competition. But the brash Iacocca had a frosty relationship with the company’s equally domineering chairman, Henry Ford II. Within weeks of being abruptly fired by Ford, Iacocca accepted the top job at Chrysler. He found the firm in shambles, saddled with $5 billion in debt and a fleet of unpopular gas-guzzlers. Iacocca secured $1.5 billion in government loan guarantees to keep the company afloat and rolled out a new line of fuel-efficient sedans. “If you can find a better car, buy it,” Iacocca said in TV ads. In 1983, a profitable Chrysler paid back its government loans seven years early, capping off one of the greatest corporate turnarounds of all time.
Born to Italian immigrants in Allentown, Pa., “he inherited his promotional instinct from his father,” said the Los Angeles Times. Nicola Iacocca owned a hot dog stand, a car rental agency, and a movie theater, where he once offered free admission to the 10 kids with the dirtiest faces. “But the family lost everything during the Depression.” Unable to serve in World War II because of a bout of rheumatic fever, a disappointed Iacocca “threw himself” into engineering, said the Detroit Free Press. He took a job at Ford in 1946 but soon grew “bored with the nitty-gritty of engineering” and switched to sales. Within three years he’d worked his way up from a lowly fleet salesman in Chester, Pa., to a zone manager overseeing 18 dealers.
“It took a decade for Iacocca to distinguish himself in Ford’s huge workforce,” said The New York Times. His breakout moment was “56 for 56”: a sales promotion offering 1956 models for 20 percent down and $56 a month for three years. “The idea was so successful regionally that Ford turned it into a national campaign.” Seeing Iacocca’s potential, Ford vice president and future defense secretary Robert McNamara groomed him for the C-suite. Iacocca succeeded his mentor in 1960, and four years later created “a phenomenon” with the Mustang, said The Washington Post. While McNamara believed in dependable, utilitarian vehicles, Iacocca understood that the growing youth market wanted a car that looked good, too. With its sleek extended hood, the Mustang generated $1.1 billion in profits in the first year. Its success vaulted Iacocca to the company presidency in 1970.
As Chrysler’s savior, the bespectacled Iacocca “became one of the nation’s best-known faces,” said The Times (U.K.). But his career was not unblemished. At Ford, he presided over the swiftly recalled Ford Pinto, which often exploded in rear-end collisions. He opposed mandatory seat belts for years, saying “they don’t help sell cars,” and by the 1990s was struggling to persuade Americans to buy Chrysler’s cars rather than the innovation-packed models offered by Japanese competitors. He retired as Chrysler’s chairman and CEO in 1992, but maintained his reputation as a “corporate folk hero,” said the Associated Press. Iacocca appeared in Chrysler ads with rapper Snoop Dogg in the 2000s and helped boost the industry’s morale during the Great Recession. “Now is the time to show your stuff,” he told a cheering crowd of Chrysler workers in 2008. “The truth is, automobiles in America are still a vital business.” ■