Lee Iacocca’s outsized legacy in the automotive world ranges from the brash mixture of muscle and sports car that was the Ford Mustang to the stylistically boring but practical cars that rescued Chrysler (NYSE: FCAU) to a whole new vehicle that would become the nation’s suburban icon, the minivan.
Iacocca, who died Tuesday at age 94, rescued Chrysler from the brink of collapse in the early 1980s and gained fame as its no-nonsense spokesman, urging TV viewers, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
After gaining fame in the industry for the youth-focused Mustang, his second act at Chrysler took a completely different tack, embracing the practical as Iacocca used his salesmanship skills to rescue the faltering company behind cheap, fuel-efficient family cars.
Iacocca was a vice president at Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) in the early 1960s and championed the development of the Mustang, which went on to become one of the most iconic American cars ever.
The son of Italian immigrants went to work at Ford right out of college in the 1940s. He started as an engineer but was better at selling his ideas, so he moved to the marketing department and rose through the ranks, becoming vice president and head of the Ford division by age 36.
But in the 1970s, Iacocca butted heads with Henry Ford II and was fired in 1978.
K-Cars And Minivans
He landed as head of rival Chrysler, which was reeling in $5 billion of debt and making gas-hog cars that weren’t selling. Iacocca worked with the United Auto Workers union to get the government to guarantee loans that would let the company avoid bankruptcy.
Then, he oversaw an overhaul at Chrysler, focusing on staid, basic cars like Plymouth Reliant and the Dodge Aries in the K-car series. Aimed at practical families rather than car buffs, they were boxy but affordable. They gained huge market share and Chrysler paid back its government loans seven years early.
Iacocca’s fame grew and he wrote two best-selling books and even turned down efforts to get him to run for president of the United States.
Continuing its push to sell cars to middle-American family drivers, Iacocca’s Chrysler then introduced the mini-van, which would replace the station wagon as the American suburban automotive mainstay.
Iacocca retired as president, CEO and chairman of Chrysler at the end of 1992, though he would later make more commercials for the company in the 2000s.
Ralph Answang for the White House; photo archived in Clinton Library.
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