Before Elon Musk, before Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca made the business of American business seem like the greatest adventure on the planet. Born Lido Anthony Iacocca in 1924 to immigrant parents who ran an Allentown, Pennsylvania, hot dog restaurant, Iacocca possessed the soul of a salesman, the preening ego of a rock-band frontman and the pluck of a champion poker player. In his 46-year career, he transformed the car industry with inventive new models like the Ford Mustang and the minivan, but he also played politics smoother than a Chicago alderman.
Along the way, Iacocca became the country’s highest-paid executive, published an autobiography that stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 88 weeks, and was ranked the nation’s third-most admired person in a 1985 Gallup Poll, just behind President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Long before Donald Trump made his cross-over move, Iacocca thought about taking a shot at becoming our first businessman president. Like Trump, he excelled at self-promotion, wrote a best-selling autobiography, thrilled at flying around the country in a private Boeing jet, and was keen to watch himself on television. But behind his egomania was the continued accomplishment of getting thousands of people to dig their way out of a ditch to create something great. Had the President Iacocca thing happened, it might have been a bust, but his highlight reel would have been much better than Trump’s.
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Iacocca was a prolific hit-maker, doing more with less than perhaps any car executive of his time. Although the Mustang wasn’t his idea nor his design, he became the car’s auteur, shepherding it through the Ford bureaucracy that became risk-averse after the Edsel disaster. Après le Edsel, Iacocca wrote in his autobiography, Ford researchers had detected a desire for a car that was smaller and sportier than the big iron Detroit had been building. Buyers of the Ford Falcon, a sensible economy car introduced in 1960 by Iacocca’s mentor, Robert S. McNamara, before he left for the Kennedy administration, had taken to ordering bigger engines and sporty options that Ford had made available.
“Whereas the Edsel had been a car in search of a market it never found, here was a market in search of a car,” wrote Iacocca, who was McNamara’s replacement as the head of the Ford division. Alas, the company’s development budget had been plundered by the Edsel, leaving little money to engineer a new model from the ground up. But Iacocca reckoned that Ford could fashion something exciting yet affordable from the dull automotive bones of the Falcon. The Mustang’s winning design, almost feline in its execution, had a long nose and short rear deck, making it look like it was in motion even at rest. But not everybody thought Iacocca’s re-skinned Falcon would succeed. One product planner told him making a sporty car out of the compact was like putting falsies on grandma.
Introduced in 1964, Iacocca’s Mustang became the fastest-selling car of its era, selling 1 million units in just two years, exceeding Iacocca’s wildest projections and inspiring a fleet of imitations from Ford’s competition—the Camaro, the Firebird, the Barracuda, the Challenger, the Javelin. Designed to appeal to young people, the Mustang sold in the millions because it made older buyers feel like they were young, too.
Despite his many successes at Ford (and a few lemons, like his explosion-prone Pinto), Iacocca got the ax from CEO Henry Ford II in 1978. In an interview published after his death, Ford explained why. “He’s too conceited, too self-centered to be able to see the broad picture,” Ford said. At his next stop, as head of the Chrysler Corporation, Iacocca proved Ford half right. More conceited and self-centered than any Fortune 500 business leader in recent history, Iacocca insisted on making himself the face of the beleaguered company. He pressed publicly for loan guarantees and other favors from the government in 1979, recruiting owners of Chrysler dealerships to lobby their local members of Congress to support the $1.5 billion bailout, which succeeded.
The political instincts that carried him to Ford’s executive suite at the ridiculously young age of 36 served him well in Washington, where he met with President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s to campaign against airbags and tougher emission standards. Later, he would become the industry’s biggest proponent of airbags. Who knows? With flip-floppery like this, he could have been an excellent full-time office-holder.
During his time at Ford, Iacocca spearheaded a design for a revolutionary minivan that his bosses spiked. With the blessing of Henry Ford II’s brother William Clay Ford, he took the minivan research for the project to Chrysler when he joined the company in 1978. Chrysler had previously explored an idea for a “Super wagon” for families, so buy-in existed for Iacocca’s dream. Previous American vans had limited appeal because they were designed by the truck divisions, and drove like it. Iacocca ordered his car designers to produce something roomier, something with the lighter driving touch of a car. Their mission was made simpler because Chrysler had something in its parts bin Ford didn’t—a front-wheel-drive engine and drive train from its compact Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon. The front-wheel power train freed up extra space for passengers and cargo, not to mention cup holders, making Iacocca’s minivan an American living room on wheels. It was the Falcon-into-Mustang transmogrification all over again, only on a grander scale. Again the rest of the industry found itself chasing Iacocca’s exhaust. One can only guess how many former Mustang owners ended up driving their kids to game days in a minivan.
At latest count, 12 million Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and Chrysler Town & Country minivans from Chrysler have been built. According to a 1994 Fortune magazine piece, minivans were among the most profitable products of that decade. Chrysler owned the minivan market from 1983, when it introduced its first minivan, until the mid-1990s, averaging $6,100 in gross profits against an average sticker price of $19,000 for each van. Not since Hitler’s minions created the Volkswagen beetle had the auto industry produced such a universal people’s car.
Iacocca scored other triumphs at Chrysler. He led the purchase of AMC-Jeep from Renault in 1987, helping to make Chrysler a leader in the soon to burgeon SUV segment of the car market. He kept the company afloat in the 1980s with an assortment of “K-cars,” execrable but cheap sedans, selling about 2 million of them. He partnered with Mitsubishi and Fiat. Chrysler eventually did so well that he considered a hostile takeover of rival General Motors before backing off. “In the end,” he wrote in his second book, Talking Straight, “I concluded that it might be easier to buy Greece.”
Rightly credited with the rescue of Chrysler (with a necessary assist from the taxpayers), Iacocca became a free-range celebrity. President Reagan appointed him the head of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation in 1982, he was recruited to complete the term of Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) (he declined), and he was approached by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to become the commissioner of baseball. He acted, too, appearing on Miami Vice as Park Commissioner Lido, in addition to preforming as Chrysler’s top TV commercial pitchman.
After retiring from Chrysler at 68 in 1992, Iacocca couldn’t stay away from the car business. In 1995, he joined an abortive attempt to take Chrysler private and later joined an initiative to build lightweight electric vehicles. He even made additional Chrysler commercials with Snoop Dogg and others.
Trained as a mechanical engineer and later schooled at Princeton, Iacocca switched to marketing and sales when he got to Ford because, he said, that’s “where the real action was.” Iacocca loved cars, he loved to compete, and he possessed a unique talent for knowing what consumers wanted before they knew they wanted it. Sort of like Musk and Jobs.
I had a friend who lived in a high-theft area who bought a K car because he knew nobody would ever try to steal it. Send your K-car stories via to [email protected]. My email alerts have never learned to drive. My Twitter feed thinks the 1968 Camaro is the prettiest car ever built. My RSS feed drives a rat-rod.