Lee Iacocca, the U.S. auto executive and television pitchman whose feel for consumers' changing tastes helped produce the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler minivan and made him one of the first celebrity CEOs, has died.
He was 94.
His passing was confirmed by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in a statement.
The death was caused by complications from Parkinson's disease, the Washington Post
said, citing his daughter Lia Iacocca Assad.
Studied in business schools, emulated by a generation of executives, Iacocca was a star salesman for cars and for himself, spurring periodic talk of running for president. (He never did.)
'Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry and our country,' Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement. '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.'
Iacocca arguably ushered in the era of the celebrity auto executive, with others such as Sergio Marchionne, Elon Musk and Carlos Ghosn following in his footsteps. Marchionne died last year, and Ghosn fell from grace in November after his arrest for financial crimes related to his tenure at Nissan.
'I didn't always agree with him, but he was a brilliant visionary,' said Bob Lutz, former Chrysler president, who worked closely with Iaccoca and clashed with him at times. 'He was flawed in many ways but when I rated the CEOs I knew, he came out on top.'
Iacocca was no miracle worker, however, and the American auto industry's struggles didn't end with his tenure. Japanese carmakers saw their U.S. market share grow 10-fold, to about 30 per cent, during his 23 years leading two of America's Big Three automakers. Chrysler, which averted collapse in 1980 in what may have been Iacocca's crowning achievement, was buffeted by the financial crisis and recession of 2008, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2009.
'It pains me to see my old company, which has meant so much to America, on the ropes,' Iacocca told Newsweek
at the time. The company emerged as Chrysler Group LLC, majority-owned by Italy's Fiat. It is now named Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
— Ford Motor Company (@Ford) July 3, 2019
Iacocca first came to prominence when, at 36, he was named general manager of the Ford division in 1960. With a group of like-minded young executives, he formed what became known as the Fairlane Committee – named for the inn where they met for brainstorming dinners – to discuss how to design a low-cost, sporty car that would entice younger, more affluent families to become two-car households.
'It had to be a sports car but more than a sports car,' Iacocca wrote in his memoir. 'We wanted to develop a car that you could drive to the country club on Friday night, to the drag strip on Saturday and to church on Sunday.' The Mustang, introduced at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, was an unqualified hit.
Iacocca became president of Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford in 1970. At 46, he was second in command only to Chairman Henry Ford II, grandson of the company's founder and seven years his senior. During Iacocca's eight-year tenure, the two men sparred over topics big and small, from car design to perceived personal slights.
Executive-suite reorganizations in 1977 and 1978 resulted in de facto demotions of Iacocca and led to a showdown meeting on July 13, 1978, at which Ford ordered him to resign. His last day on the payroll was Oct. 15, his 54th birthday. He had been at Ford for 32 years.
Two weeks after his ouster from Ford, Iacocca took over as president and chief operating officer at Chrysler, brought on by Chairman John Riccardo just as the company reported a quarterly loss of US$160 million, its largest at the time.
'I really didn't want to retire at 54,' Iacocca said at a press conference. 'I really didn't want to be banished from the auto scene.'
His 14 years at Chrysler gave Iacocca the chance to pursue initiatives that had met resistance at Ford. These included the fuel-efficient K-series Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant models as well as the first U.S.-produced minivan, introduced in 1983 as the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan. He steered Chrysler's 1987 acquisition of American Motors Corp., with its Jeep franchise.
First, though, Iacocca had to save Chrysler from looming bankruptcy.
After becoming chairman and CEO in September 1979, he led a cost-cutting program that closed plants and slashed tens of thousands of jobs. He also sealed Chrysler's deal with Congress and President Jimmy Carter's administration for US$1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees. In 1983, seven years earlier than required, Chrysler finished repaying the $1.2 billion in government-backed loans it had used.
As much as for any of his corporate decisions, Iacocca became known as the straight-talking, patriotic pitchman in Chrysler's television commercials, produced by New York-based firm Kenyon & Eckhardt Inc., in which he vouched for Chrysler's cars as superior to those from Japan and Germany. His trademark line went down in advertising history: 'If you can find a better car, buy it.'
Iacocca stepped down as Chrysler chair on January 1, 1993.