BEL AIR, Calif. — Former automotive executive and engineer Lee Iacocca died Tuesday at the age of 94 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by two daughters and eight grandchildren.
Best known as the CEO of and sometime TV pitchman for Chrysler Corp. in the 1980s, Iacocca is credited with saving the Detroit company from irrelevance and bankruptcy, leading the development of the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan and the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant “K-cars” and convincing the U.S. Treasury Department to back $1.5 billion in bank loans following back-to-back economic recessions.
But Iacocca began his career in 1946 with Ford Motor Co., where he rocketed up the executive ranks and invented the concept of the pony car. The vaunted Mustang officially hit U.S. streets in 1964 and remains in production today.
Iacocca was let go by Ford and joined Chrysler in 1978. He was named CEO a year later and would become widely regarded as America’s most famous business leader in any industry. In a statement, former fellow Chrysler executive Lisa Copeland called the company’s rebirth “one of the most impressive business turnarounds ever.”
“One of the things I will remember most was his bold leadership style. Iacocca said things like they were and was a true visionary and innovator,” Copeland added. “He even told consumers, ‘If you can find a better car, buy it!’ He would make promises and delivered. The things he taught us and his legacy will live forever in the auto industry.”
Fellow industry firebrand and Auto Dealer Today columnist Jim Ziegler worked as a general sales manager at a Chrysler dealership when Iacocca was in charge.
“We used to say ‘Iacocca’ stood for ‘I am chairman of Chrysler Corporation of America,’” Ziegler said. “I never met him, but I loved the guy. The pony car was his concept. The minivan was his concept. He invented the rebate. And he was the first to offer financing to consumers — ‘52 for 52,’ for soldiers returning from World War II — a ’52 Ford for $52 dollars down and $52 a month for 36 months. Before GMAC or anybody else, he invented retail financing.”
Iacocca was “truly bigger than life,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. “He left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry, and our country. Lee played a central role in the creation of 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.”
An official statement from FCA read, in part, “Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today — one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit. We are committed to ensuring that Chrysler, now FCA, is such a company, an example of commitment and respect, known for excellence as well as for its contribution to society. His legacy is the resiliency and unshakeable faith in the future that live on in the men and women of FCA who strive every day to live up to the high standards he set.”
Reflecting on his career upon his 1992 retirement, Iacocca described his leadership style as an embrace of adversity.
“I’m built that way,” Iacocca said. “Some guys fight better with real ammunition … on maneuvers, they goof off. My adrenaline flows when you’re really in the trenches and things are tough.”