Lee Iacocca, one of the last of the American auto industry titans, has died. He was 94, according to an obituary in the Los Angeles Times.
Iacocca’s career included glory. He helped develop the original version of the Mustang that debuted in 1964. In the early 1980s, he turned around Chrysler. He secured a U.S. bailout that got the automaker back on its feet.
However, Iacocca’s career also included setbacks. He was fired from as president of Ford Motor by Henry Ford II. The move was a reminder that executives who aren’t members of the Ford family are always at risk when they’re perceived as upstaging the Fords. Then, as now, the family maintain 40 percent voting control through a class of super-voting stock.
What’s more, Iacocca arguably stayed too long in the top job at Chrysler. Potential successors as CEO departed, tired of waiting Iacocca out. He turned 65, the normal executive retirement age, in 1989. But he held on into the 1990s.
Having gotten Chrysler out of one soap opera, Iacocca got it into another. The succession issue at Chrysler lasted for years. He feuded with company president Robert Lutz, a colorful “car guy” who was more than ready for a promotion.
Iacocca finally let go at the end of 1992 when the company recruited General Motors executive Robert Eaton as the new boss. Iacocca’s departure was reluctant. But he likely took satisfaction in denying Lutz the top job. The latter remained as president, but now serving under a new CEO. Lutz told Bloomberg Tuesday that, “I didn’t always agree with him, but he was a brilliant visionary.”
Even so, Iacocca wasn’t done with Chrysler. He joined forces in 1995 with financier Kirk Kerkorian in a takeover attempt of Chrysler. It didn’t succeed. But it shook things up at Chrysler.
“It was a total shock that Iacocca would come back and try to take the company back,” former Chrysler executive Thomas Stallkamp told Automotive News in a 2015 story.
By 1998, the Eaton-led Chrysler opted to merge with Germany’s Daimler. That was the beginning of another soap opera, one that wouldn’t end happily. Chrysler would get another U.S. bailout in 2009 and merge with Italy’s Fiat.
In the end, Iacocca’s story is a reminder of how the auto industry isn’t saved. It gets reprieved at best.
Larger Than Life
Regardless, Iacocca had a larger-than-life persona.
“He was one of the great leaders of our company and the auto industry as a whole,” Fiat Chrysler said in a statement late Tuesday. “Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today.”
The turnaround at Chrysler provided Iacocca a measure of revenge against Henry Ford II. Iacocca became the face of Chrysler via television commercials. He also criticized Japanese automakers for what he said were unfair trade practices.
Iacocca then began to assume a public profile that went beyond the auto industry.
In the 1980s, with his image at its peak, he led efforts to raise money to revamp the Statue of Liberty. He produced (with a ghostwriter) an autobiography. For a time, he had a regular newspaper column.
These days, the auto industry mostly lacks characters such as Iacocca. Whether that’s good or bad, it’s certainly a change. Today’s auto industry is concerned with self-driving and electric cars. It’s in the midst of big changes and nobody really knows how it’s going to turn out.
With news of Iacocca’s death, the executive’s clash at Ford Motor was put aside. “Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry and our country,” Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in a statement issued by the company.
Iacocca, in his day, may not have known how the story would end. But he provided plenty of colorful anecdotes along the way.