Date
22 October 2019
Lee Iacocca is seen during a Chrysler earnings briefing in a file picture from February 1991. The legendary auto industry executive died on Tuesday at his home in Bel-Air, California. Photo: Reuters
Lee Iacocca is seen during a Chrysler earnings briefing in a file picture from February 1991. The legendary auto industry executive died on Tuesday at his home in Bel-Air, California. Photo: Reuters

Auto industry icon Lee Iacocca dies at 94

Lee Iacocca, the charismatic US auto industry executive who gave America the Ford Mustang and was celebrated for saving Chrysler from going out of business, has died at the age of 94, Reuters reports.

Iacocca died Tuesday at his home in Bel-Air, California of complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to the report.

“The company is saddened by the news of Lee Iacocca’s passing. He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a true competitive force,” Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said in a statement.

“He was one of the great leaders of our company and the auto industry as a whole. He also played a profound and tireless role on the national stage as a business statesman and philanthropist,” the company said.

During a nearly five-decade career in Detroit that began in 1946 at Ford Motor Co, the son of Italian immigrants made the covers of Time, Newsweek and the New York Times Sunday Magazine in stories portraying him as the avatar of the American Auto Age, Reuters noted.

One of the first celebrity US chief executives, his autobiography made best-seller lists in the mid-1980s.

Iacocca encouraged his design teams to be bold, and they responded with sports cars that appealed to baby boomers in the 1960s, fuel-efficient models when gasoline prices soared in the 1970s, and the first-ever, family-oriented minivan in the 1980s that led its segment in sales for 25 years.

“I don’t know an auto executive that I’ve ever met who has a feel for the American consumer the way he does,” late United Auto Workers Union President Douglas Fraser had said. “He’s the greatest communicator who’s ever come down the pike in the history of the industry.”

Iacocca won a place in business history when he pulled Chrysler, now part of Fiat Chrysler, from the brink of collapse in 1980, rallying support in US Congress for US$1.2 billion in federally guaranteed loans and persuading suppliers, dealers and union workers to make sacrifices. 

He put his personal reputation on the line, and in the end, it was a tour de force of leadership. Factoring in positions at Chrysler, its dealerships and suppliers, he saved more than 500,000 jobs.

About that time, Chrysler’s introduction of the smaller, fuel-efficient “K Cars” gave it a boost. In a series of no-nonsense television commercials, Iacocca barked, “If you can find a better car, buy it!”

He paid the loans back seven years early, and in 1983, a cartoon showed frantic executives of the troubled U.S. airline industry shouting into a phone, “Get me Lee Iacocca!”

But Iacocca’s star faded in the late 1980s as Chrysler floundered again.

Chrysler struggled through the 1990-1991 economic downturn, losing US$800 million in 1991. Iacocca refused to cut new product spending, and by 1992, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and LH sedans led to a US$732 million profit, while Ford and General Motors were in the red.

With Chrysler profitable again, Iacocca stepped down at the end of 1992. He lived out his latter years in Bel-Air, California.

In retirement, Iacocca invested in the casino business and a line of imported olive oil, and he joined corporate boards.

He penned “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?,” a 2007 book critical of American leadership, especially President George W. Bush.

Iacocca was often described as a demanding and volatile boss who sometimes clashed with fellow executives.

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