Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca died at the age of 94 on July 2nd at his home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, California from complications associated with Parkinson’s disease. He will forever be linked to two vehicles that changed the auto industry and launched countless competitors: the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler minivan. Iacocca trained as an engineer, but his genius was in the field of marketing and the ability to recognize engineers who would lead the teams that created legendary vehicles.
With equal parts bravado and marketing genius, Lee Iacocca had a gift for knowing what the automobile customer wanted before they did. He also convinced a skeptical public and the U.S. government to give the Chrysler auto company a second chance, when the company seemed dead in the water. He was the only executive in modern times to preside over the operations of two of the Big Three automakers.
Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania to Nicola Iacocca and Antonietta Perrotta, Iacocca’s parent had immigrated from the town of San Marco dei Cavoti, in the Benevento province of Campania and operated a restaurant called Yocco’s Hot Dogs. Iacocca graduated with honors from Allentown High School in 1942 and Lehigh University in neighboring Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with a degree in industrial engineering. After graduation, he won the Wallace Memorial Fellowship and went to Princeton University. He then began a career at the Ford Motor Company, first as an engineer and then in sales, where he quickly moved up the Ford management ladder.
Iacocca participated in the design of several successful Ford Motor Company automobiles, including the Continental Mark III, the Ford Escort and the revival of the Mercury brand in the late 1960s, but he is most remembered as the father of the Ford Mustang, a car that stunned the automotive industry when introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair. He became the president of the Ford Motor Company, but he clashed with Chairman, Henry Ford II and was fired on July 13, 1978, despite the fact that the company posted a $2 billion profit for the year.
The sting of his departure from Ford had not yet subsided when Iacocca was aggressively courted by Chrysler; this at a time when the automaker was in dire straits. He began rebuilding the entire company from the ground up. Realizing that Chrysler would go out of business if it did not receive a large infusion of cash, Iacocca approached the United States Congress in 1979 and successfully requested a loan guarantee. Initially it was the K-car that helped to stabilize the company, but it was the introduction of the minivan that made the company profitable. Ironically, it was a concept that Iacocca wanted to build at Ford, but it was personally rejected by Henry Ford II. The minivan was an enormous hit and Chrysler led the automotive world in sales of ubiquitous vehicle for the next 25 years. Ultimately, Chrysler was able to repay the government-backed loans seven years earlier than expected.
Throughout the 1980s, Iacocca appeared in a series of commercials for the company’s vehicles, voicing what was to become his trademark phrase: “If you can find a better car, buy it.” Iacocca retired as president, CEO and chairman of Chrysler at the end of 1992.
He was also a humanitarian of the highest order, founding the Iacocca Foundation to fund research for diabetes, the disease that claimed his first wife, Mary. The Foundation remains a leader in the battle against the disease to this day.
He was instrumental in helping to preserve and refurbish two of America’s most enduring landmarks – the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Leading the effort, Iacocca raised $500 million to restore the two monuments to freedom. In the case of Ellis Island, his passion for the cause and management of the project made it possible to reopen two years ahead of schedule.
The Mustang and minivans changed American culture despite the fact that they have nothing in common, other than the same genius at the helm, who made it his mission to bring the vehicles to fruition. Iacocca authored or co-authored several books, including Iacocca: An Autobiography (with William Novak) and Where Have All the Leaders Gone? Portfolio named Iacocca the 18th greatest American CEO of all time.
He is survived by two daughters, Kathryn Iacocca Hentz and Lia Iacocca Assad, as well as eight grandchildren.