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Lee Iacocca, at 94

by David Zatz on

Lee Iaccoca has died at the age of 94, of “natural causes,” survived by two daughters and eight grandchildren. He was born on October 15, 1924; his parents were immigrants from Italy. From humble beginnings, he led both Ford (which he originally joined in 1946) and Chrysler. At Ford, he was always #2 to the chairman of the board, Henry Ford Jr., who famously fired him in 1978; at Chrysler, he started as president and became chairman of the board.

Lee Iacocca helped Chrysler to avoid bankruptcy, convincing the U.S. government, under President Jimmy Carter, to guarantee $1.5 billion in private loans to the company; part of the deal was giving stock in the company to the Treasury, which sold it at a high profit. The loans were paid off early, as Chrysler’s new front-wheel drive compact sedans proved to be a major success. They were followed in 1984 by minivans (Lee’s role in developing these has been detailed in a recent book), which were a major profit generator—they were popular and sold at much higher margins than the company’s other cars.

While some of “Lido’s” plans did not work out—the TC by Maserati, the purchase of Gulfstream and Lamborghini, buying a large chunk of Maserati, making “limousine” and “executive car” versions of the Reliant, creating a new Imperial, and arguably the Daytona sporty coupe—the plans that did work out, including a revival of the convertible, completely changed Chrysler Corporation’s fortunes. One acquisition—purchasing American Motors, in 1987—proved to be incredibly wise, as the AMC/Jeep personnel Chrysler inherited would change the way the company made cars. That led to Chrysler’s next revival, caused by the platform-team approach to creating the Viper, LH cars, “cloud cars,” Neon, new minivans, and, most important today, the revolutionary 1994 Dodge Ram pickups.

One of Lee’s more ambitious projects was creating a massive new headquarters far from the old Highland Park complex where Chrysler had been born; the Auburn Hills Chrysler Technical Center, later expanded to also house the headquarters, brought all the engineers and designers together into one building, with integrated testing labs. The facility would be the envy of nearly every automaker in the world for years.

Lee Iacocca is still known to most people as the father of the Ford Mustang, but his greater accomplishments were at Chrysler. A strong, decisive leader, his edicts were sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but he transformed a hidebound, conservative, and above all slow company into one which reacted quickly and stunned competitors on a regular basis.

See our full bio, “Lee Iacocca: the most famous CEO of Chrysler.” 


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