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Former Chrysler chair John Riccardo

by David Zatz on

Automotive News reported on the death of John J. Riccardo, a former chairman and CEO of Chrysler Corporation, today.

Mr. Riccardo both oversaw Chrysler’s first brush with bankruptcy and its hiring of Lee Iacocca, who turned the company around only to lead it close to death again — and cemented its demise by appointing a weak CEO who quickly gave Chrysler to Daimler-Benz.

Nicknamed The Flamethrower, Mr. Riccardo was born on July 2, 1924, the son of an immigrant; he was an Army truck driver on the Burma Road during World War II, later graduating from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics. He was married for 66 years to his wife, Thelma.

In 1950, Mr. Riccardo’s fortunes were made when he started working with Lynn Townsend at an accounting firm. Mr. Riccardo worked with Kaiser-Frazer, Mr. Townsend with AMC and Chrysler. Mr. Townsend left for Chrysler in 1957, and Mr. Riccardo followed in  1959, starting as an executive and quickly moving up to head various divisions.

Mr. Riccardo became president of Chrysler Corporation in 1970, also becoming the chairman in 1975 when Mr. Townsend left. During his presidency and then his chairmanship, he was faced with numerous financial challenges as the market changed dramatically, catching the company off-guard — resulting in reflexive cost-cutting which may have made matters worse, but may also have been unavoidable.  He earned the nickname “The Flamethrower,” but not investing in small cars on time, allowing quality standards to fall, and making more cars than were ordered all hurt the company.

One decision that did save the company — after other decisions had endangered it — was okaying an investment on front wheel drive “K cars” led by Harold Sperlich. The program cost nearly half again as much as a prior plan to use the old rear wheel drive setup as a basis for the compacts.

To raise cash, Mr. Riccardo sold the Australian unit to Mitsubishi, the Venezuela unit to GM, and Brazilian and Argentinean divisions to Volkswagen, finally selling SIMCA and Rootes Group to Peugeot. All the time, he blamed the government for Chrysler’s problems and tried to get emissions and safety laws rolled back.


Mr. Riccardo courted Ford’s Lee Iacocca, bringing him on as  president in late 1978; he stepped down in 1979, at the age of 55, after his request for aid from the government had been rejected.  His action in stepping down was called heroic by Lee Iacocca.


Mr. Riccardo died yesterday at the age of 91 while at a University of Michigan basketball game. His son, Rev. John Riccardo Jr., gave a euology today.

For the full story, with more detail, see the Automotive News story.

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