Auto industry legend Lee Iacocca dies at 94

DETROIT – He was one of those unique personalities that America’s auto industry sometimes produces – a larger-than-life presence who changed the course of automotive history.

Revered by some, reviled by others, Lee Iacocca was a force to be reckoned with, both publicly and privately. Father of the Mustang, midwife to the minivan, rescuer of Chrysler Corp., restorer of the Statue of Liberty, Lee Iacocca died Tuesday at his home in Bel Air, California, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and longtime auto executive Bob Lutz confirmed to the Free Press. He was 94.

During the height of his career in the 1980s, Iacocca was arguably the most popular business figure in the world. Pictures of him, often with his trademark cigar, were on magazine covers and TV screens. His 1984 autobiography became an international best -seller. He was in global demand as a speaker.

There even were movements to draft him as a presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988, and as a U.S. senator in 1991. Iacocca – probably wisely – sidestepped all those drives.

His death was met by an outpouring of tributes and sadness late Tuesday.

"He was one of the great leaders of our company and the auto industry as a whole," Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said in a statement. "He also played a profound and tireless role on the national stage as a business statesman and philanthropist. Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today – one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit."

Lee Iacocca speaks at the 70th Luncheon of the Metro-Detroit
Lee Iacocca speaks at the 70th Luncheon of the Metro-Detroit

And Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said Iacocca had a deep and lasting impact on the auto industry.

“Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry and our country," he said. "Lee played a central role in the creation of the Mustang. On a personal note, I will always appreciate how encouraging he was to me at the beginning of my career. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.”

Lido Anthony Iacocca was born Oct. 15, 1924, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where his family ran a small hot-dog eatery – the forerunner of a Coney Island-type chain now known as Yocco’s, a Lehigh Valley corruption of the Iacocca name. The family eventually expanded its interests into real estate and other businesses.

Iacocca’ parents immigrated through Ellis Island from Italy – his father, Nicola, in 1902 and his mother, Antoinette, in 1921.

The future auto executive – the younger of two children – went to public school, graduating 12th in the Allentown High School class of 1942. Because he had rheumatic fever a couple of years earlier, Iacocca was rejected and classified 4F when he tried to join the Army Air Force after high school.

Disappointed that he couldn’t help fight World War II, he threw himself into the engineering program at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Iacocca ripped through eight straight semesters, with no summers off, graduating with honors in industrial engineering in 1945.

Even before finishing at Lehigh, Iacocca had set his sights on working for Ford Motor Co. He won a job with the automaker upon graduation but, at the same time, was offered a fellowship for graduate work at Princeton University.

The Ford recruiter told him to take the fellowship; the company would hold a spot for him. He completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Princeton in 1946 and arrived by train in Detroit with $50 to start work as a Ford engineering trainee.

Quickly bored with the nitty gritty of engineering, Iacocca started what would become his life’s work – marketing – by selling Ford executives on the notion that he should switch to sales.

He started that same year as a lowly fleet salesman in Chester, Pennsylvania. By 1949, he was a zone manager working with 18 dealers. Ten years after switching to marketing, Iacocca won the attention of Ford headquarters in Dearborn by developing a finance program to move slow-selling 1956 models: Customers could make a 20% down payment, then make three years of $56 monthly payments. Financing for new cars was just coming into vogue; Iacocca called his version "56 for ’56.’’

The program took off, and so did Iacocca’s career. By 1960, he was head of car and truck sales for Ford Division. Later that year, at age 36, he was named vice president in charge of the division.

Fired from Ford

Lee Iacocca, as a young man, already president of Ford Motor Company, pictured here in front of the River Rouge Plant in 1971.
Lee Iacocca, as a young man, already president of Ford Motor Company, pictured here in front of the River Rouge Plant in 1971.

Iacocca’s first major achievement as head of Ford Division was also his first major contribution to automotive history – the Mustang.

Iacocca and his team members were looking for a car that would have youthful appeal, with head-turning style, strong performance and a low price, he wrote in his autobiography. They used the engine, transmission and axle from Ford’s popular but plain Falcon, designed a whole new body for that platform, and brought it to market in the spring of 1964 with a base price of just $2,368, including bucket seats, wheel covers and carpeting as standard equipment.

During Mustang’s first sales weekend, 4 million people visited Ford dealerships. The car appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines.

The Mustang set a U.S. record of 418,812 sold in its first 12 months, and Iacocca got a promotion to vice president in charge of all car and truck development for both Ford and Lincoln-Mercury divisions.

By December 1970, 24 years after joining the company as a trainee, Iacocca was president of Ford.

But his relationship with Chairman Henry Ford II, at first warm, grew chilly with time as conflicts developed between the two strong personalities.

Donald Frey, Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II at the New
Donald Frey, Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II at the New

Henry Ford II fired Iacocca on July 13, 1978. When journalists asked for a reason, Ford responded, “It’s personal, and I can’t tell you any more. It’s just one of those things.”

To protect some of Iacocca’s benefits, Ford agreed to make the firing effective Oct. 15, Iacocca’s 54th birthday. But as a final humiliation, he exiled Iacocca from Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, known locally as the Glass House, and assigned him a small uncarpeted office in a company parts depot off Telegraph Road in Detroit.

Chrysler's savior

Within a few weeks, Chrysler Corp., the nation’s No. 3 automaker, had wooed and won Iacocca, although announcement of the new alliance was postponed to Nov. 1,1978, when Iacocca was named Chrysler’s president and chief executive officer. In less than a year, in September 1979, he would become chairman.

The day Iacocca was made its president, Chrysler announced record third-quarter losses of $160 million. As Iacocca wrote in his autobiography, “One of Chrysler’s biggest problems, as I soon learned, was that even its top management didn’t have a very good idea of what was going on. They knew Chrysler was bleeding. What they didn’t realize – and what I would soon find out – was that it was hemorrhaging.”

By the summer of 1979, Iacocca had concluded that Chrysler would need government help to survive. After a long and sometimes humiliating campaign, Iacocca’s team won a $1.5 billion loan guarantee from Congress. The Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act gained congressional passage Dec. 21, 1979, saving 600,000 Chrysler jobs and countless supplier companies and giving Chrysler time to restructure.

Between early 1980 and February 1981, Chrysler used $1.2 billion of the $1.5 billion guarantee. To access the money, the company had to streamline itself, secure wage and benefit concessions from all employees, renegotiate existing loans and get financial backing from banks and suppliers.

Iacocca set the pace by cutting his own salary for 1980 from about $360,000 to $1.

Everybody affiliated with Chrysler made financial concessions: union members, executives and suppliers. In addition, the company laid off thousands of blue- and white-collar employees as it cut beyond fat and into the meat of operations.

At the same time, Iacocca pushed through the development pipeline the plain, rectangular and desperately needed K-cars that gave Chrysler fuel-efficient family sedans to sell. The Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant K-cars came to market in 1981 and Iacocca, by this time appearing in Chrysler TV ads as well as running the company, told Americans, “If you can find a better car, buy it.’’ A survey showed that 85% of TV viewers knew who Iacocca was and believed him to be sincere.

By mid-1983, Chrysler was in good enough shape to pay back its entire loan package seven years ahead of schedule. Iacocca announced the move at the National Press Club in Washington on July 13, 1983 – exactly five years after Ford had fired him.

In three years time, lending banks had made $404 million in interest off Chrysler; the federal government made $33 million in administrative fees; lawyers and investment bankers had made $67 million, and the U.S. Treasury made more than $311 million off Chrysler stock warrants the department received as part of the loan guarantee package.

As if he weren’t busy enough, Iacocca said yes in May 1982 when President Ronald Reagan asked him to lead a multimillion-dollar private fund drive to renovate the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in time for the statue’s 100th birthday in 1986. Iacocca accepted the task in tribute to his parents.

But Iacocca’s supercharged activities came to a sudden halt on May 15, 1983, when Mary, his wife for 26 years, died of complications from diabetes.

Though he had one of the best-known faces in America, Iacocca always described himself as a homebody. He detested eating out, preferring a home-cooked pasta meal and an update on what daughters Kathi and Lia were up to.

Mary Iacocca had been the anchor of the auto executive’s private life; now she was gone. Iacocca called her death the “greatest personal sadness of my life.”

But he couldn’t stay still for long. Iacocca was by now an international business hero with many demands on him. Admirers wanted to draft him as a 1984 presidential candidate. He declined, signing a new three-year contract with Chrysler at the end of 1983.

“I’m too outspoken to be a good politician,” he observed later in his autobiography. “If a guy’s giving me a lot of baloney, I tell him to buzz off because he’s wrong. Somehow I don’t think the presidency works that way.”

That November, Chrysler turned consumer heads with something entirely new – a vehicle the company called a minivan. Iacocca described the minivan as revolutionary and historic and predicted it would “create extraordinary excitement and buyer interest and force other manufacturers to come up with copycat versions.”

He was right. With a unique design, high utility and a base sticker price of about $8,500, the minivan created a consumer sensation as well as a whole new market segment.

Iacocca had now turned the auto industry upside down three times in his career: first with the Ford Mustang in 1964, next with the salvation of Chrysler and then with the minivan.

Fired again

On Iacocca’s 60th birthday, Oct. 15, 1984, his autobiography hit the nation’s bookstores and became an instant best-seller. The book was vintage Iacocca – blunt, folksy, opinionated, colorful and full of details about his turbulent career.

Iacocca made no promotional tours for the book. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, publisher Bantam Books had printed a million hardcover copies of “Iacocca: An Autobiography.” Stores sold out of the $18 books as fast as they got them. Hundreds of fans mailed copies to Chrysler headquarters hoping Iacocca would autograph the volumes. Iacocca increased his already intense popularity by announcing that all profits from the autobiography would go toward finding a cure for diabetes.

Iacocca and Chrysler both were on a roll.

As the Statue of Liberty’s 1986 centennial approached, Iacocca announced the fund drive for its restoration had exceeded its goal, with $277 million either in hand or pledged.

Then, almost as proof that he wouldn’t mix well in politics, Iacocca found himself fired again – this time as chairman of the national commission overseeing actual restoration work on the statue and Ellis Island.

Interior Secretary Donald Hodel said in February 1986 that he didn’t want one man in charge of both raising and spending the money for the project. But employees of the National Park Service, which maintains the statue and Ellis Island, reportedly resented Iacocca’s take-charge methods and accused him of running roughshod over them with his plans.

In addition, there were rumors Iacocca might be drafted to run for the White House as a Democrat in 1988.

“I’m no threat,” an outraged Iacocca said after the firing. “I’m not running for anything except my life. If it was just politics, boys will be boys down there. They get nervous, and an election is coming up and that’s the game they play in Washington.”

The smoke created by Iacocca’s firing had drifted away by the time the auto executive revved up the Statue of Liberty Centennial celebration on the July 4 weekend of 1986.

The glittering salute featured special musical performances and a massive fireworks display, and drew more than 20 tall ships, dozens of movie stars, heads of state, business leaders, thousands of journalists and an estimated 13 million spectators to New York harbor.

Iacocca said income from tickets and advertising would nearly cover the $3.2 million cost of the gala. Asked about accusations that the restoration project had been commercialized, Iacocca snapped, “Commercialization is a good American trait. We’ve been commercializing things for more than 100 years.”

Iacocca’s father, Nicola, was not there to see the celebration, having died in 1973. But the auto executive’s mother, Antoinette, then 82, was an honored guest.

“My son God gave me,” a teary Antoinette Iacocca said. “I’m happy so much for him I can describe to nobody. He makes me feel so good in here,” she said, tapping her chest over her heart. “Sometimes I think a little too much is on him; but he loves it.”

The Jeep deal

Indeed, Iacocca seemed always at the center of a whirlwind.

Chrysler, now profitable but still short on appealing models, formed joint ventures with overseas automakers, including Mitsubishi, Samsung and Maserati.

But the biggest deal by far was Iacocca’s announcement March 9, 1987, that Chrysler would buy American Motors Corp. from French automaker Renault for about $1.5 billion. The deal created merger headaches for Chrysler in the form of layoffs and plant closings; but it also brought the company its valuable Jeep brand.

Never one to think small, Iacocca had also explored acquiring General Motors Corp., a deal that analysts said would have cost about $40 billion. “In the end, I concluded that it might be easier to buy Greece,” Iacocca said in a second book, “Talking Straight,” published by Bantam Books in June 1988.

The GM daydream may have foreshadowed Iacocca’s boldness in an ill-fated 1995 bid – three years after his 1992 retirement – to take over Chrysler Corp. with Las Vegas billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.

The whole idea was to take Chrysler private, or at least only quasi-public, so it could be run more efficiently with a core group of stockholders controlling it, much as the Ford family controls Ford Motor Co., Iacocca explained later.

Iacocca hoped or mistakenly believed that the Chrysler board and management would accept the notion. When they didn’t, the situation deteriorated into a painful and bitter legal war between Iacocca and the company to which he had given so much of his life and energy. Kerkorian and Iacocca’s takeover attempt failed when Chrysler’s board said the company wasn’t for sale.

Man of contradictions

Iacocca was a contradictory character. He was on one hand the cigar-chomping, swashbuckling salesman who seemed to know instinctively the right things to say and do to impress a Senate subcommittee or an ordinary consumer.

On the other hand, he was intensely private and almost painfully shy offstage, a man who got nervous before every speech.

He was also a bit of a hypochondriac. It was sometimes joked by Chrysler insiders that if you wanted to shake up the day, you had only to tell Iacocca he didn’t look so good.

Meticulous in his attention to detail, Iacocca was known within Chrysler for making efficient use of his time, insisting that issues be boiled down to their essential elements before being brought to him for a decision.

He was often inspiring, but he wasn’t a back slapper and he didn’t plunge into crowds. He always maintained a certain distance, a reserve that implied power, intentionally or not. The air around him almost crackled with electricity.

Only one person was ever allowed to make fun of him in public with relative impunity: his longtime friend and fellow Ford and Chrysler executive Ben Bidwell.

At the office, only a handful of people were allowed close to him, and directives were passed down through them. The roster of executives who abruptly left the company after clashing with Iacocca was impressive and included some top men he had recruited or brought with him from Ford – Chrysler Vice Chairman Gerald Greenwald and Chief Financial Officer Steve Miller among them.

Greenwald, asked once to describe Iacocca’s management style, answered only half-jokingly, “the whip.”

Private chaos

At home, Iacocca’s private life was scarcely less chaotic.

In April 1986, three years after his beloved Mary died, Iacocca married former flight attendant and publicist Peggy Johnson. Both of them known for their short fuses, the two quarreled almost from the beginning. They separated six months after the wedding and divorced a year later, in November 1987.

In his second book, Iacocca wrote of his marriage to Johnson. After Mary died, he said, “I found myself all alone and tired as hell. Eating alone was bad enough, but living alone really scared me. Dying alone scared me even more. …

“I have to admit that I didn’t know for sure if I was ready to get married just yet. I wasn’t sure in my heart I was done mourning my first wife. I probably should have waited a little longer than I did. … Right away I started to second-guess myself.”

In March 1991, nearing retirement, he tried again. This time, Iacocca married former California restaurant owner Darrien Earle. That union dissolved in a nasty and public divorce squabble that finally ended in May 1995, in the middle of Iacocca’s bid to take over Chrysler with Kerkorian.

Iacocca’s private life and his executive habits inevitably invited comparisons with the colorful Henry Ford II, and several former colleagues said Iacocca was driven by wanting to outdo his old adversary.

Iacocca did little to dispel his imperial reputation. As time approached for introducing the cars and trucks for a given model year, Iacocca would walk through a lineup of vehicles in the Chrysler styling dome and literally give each one a thumbs up or thumbs down. This exercise sometimes resulted in costly, last-minute changes in tooling or paint colors.

On one occasion, he changed the name of a model the day before it was to be introduced to magazine reporters. Numerous news releases and other handout materials had to be ripped up and redone overnight.

As a nationwide recession took its toll on automakers in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Iacocca’s purchases of American Motors and other companies lost their luster among Wall Street analysts and critics within Chrysler. They argued the acquisitions had stripped Chrysler of money it needed to develop exciting new products.

During the first half of 1991, Chrysler lost $553 million; the company’s market share skidded from more than 12 percent in the mid-1980s to 8.7 percent for the first half of ’91.

Iacocca came under increasing pressure to retire and make room for someone with a fresh perspective - a move he finally made at the end of 1992, when the board put former GM executive Robert Eaton behind the wheel at Chrysler.

Gagged by a post-Kerkorian court settlement with Chrysler that barred both parties from criticizing each other in public, Iacocca kept his mouth uncharacteristically shut when Eaton arranged Chrysler’s buyout by Germany’s Daimler-Benz AG, announced in May 1998.

Equally uncomfortable for Iacocca was life as a retiree.


Unhappy as a bachelor, but unwilling to risk another disastrous marriage, he tackled a series of business ventures. They included gambling resorts, restaurants, olive oil, margarine, electric vehicles and an Internet company formed to sell used industrial equipment. Some of the projects kept his interest; some didn’t.

“I tell people who are getting ready to retire, don’t – meaning don’t just worry about your financial well being. You better volunteer for something, or paint or play music or be a mentor to kids. You better do something, even if you don’t need the money, just to keep active. You go nuts if you don’t,” he said in a 1999 interview.

Yet, after all his career achievements and civic activities, it was his family that Iacocca always said was most important.

“My legacy is two great daughters and six grandchildren so far. That’s your only real legacy, let’s face it. The rest comes and goes. …In the end, if you’re healthy and your family’s good, the rest was fun,” he said in a 1999 interview.

“I’ve always felt that when I die, if I can say I’ve done well by my family … then I’ve lived a full life and a good life. What else is there? You get up in the morning, you go through the same day and night as everybody else. … Maybe you’ve truly enjoyed life. But how? You’re only as good as the sharing you’ve done with those around you, especially your family and friends,” he wrote in his second book.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Auto industry legend Lee Iacocca dies at 94