Auto industry legend Lee Iacocca dies at 94

Mr Lee Iacocca is credited with creating the iconic Ford Mustang and saving Chrysler from bankruptcy.
Mr Lee Iacocca is credited with creating the iconic Ford Mustang and saving Chrysler from bankruptcy.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • Automobile industry legend Lee Iacocca, who is credited with creating the iconic Ford Mustang and saving Chrysler from bankruptcy, died on Tuesday at the age of 94, US media reported.

He died at his home in Bel-Air, a neighbourhood of Los Angeles, from complications of Parkinson's disease, his family told local media.

Chrysler said in a statement that it was saddened by news of Mr Iacocca's death.

"He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a competitive force," the statement read. "Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today - one that is characterised by hard work, dedication and grit. His legacy is the resilience and unshakeable faith in the future that live on" in the company's employees.

Mr Iacocca began his career in 1946 at the Ford Motor Company, first as an engineer and then in sales.

It was his talent in marketing that helped realise his full potential.

Mr Iacocca's first sales campaign in the mid-1950s was so successful that it attracted the attention of company executives and brought him to the Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. He had brought in massive sales over his career, particularly with the Ford Mustang that he designed in 1957.

However, he was accused of plotting against chairman Henry Ford II in a quest to reach the top company position.

In a 1992 interview, when Mr Iacocca was asked about the seemingly Machiavellian scheme, he snapped back with characteristic sharpness: "Machiavelli my ass!"

Mr Ford fired him in 1978, so Mr Iacocca moved to the floundering Chrysler Corporation.

In 1979, the US government bailed Chrysler out of a potential bankruptcy with US$1.5 billion in secured loans. Mr Iacocca took the reins once more and implemented a painful restructuring process.

He had twisted Congress' arm for the loan, and he successfully brought Chrysler back from the brink - then paid off the loan ahead of schedule.

Under his leadership, Chrysler invented the minivan and later the suburban utility vehicle.

His famous line in Chrysler ads - "If you find a better car, buy it!" he would say, pointing at the viewer - turned him into a legend.

Mr Iacocca's fierce anti-Japanese views - he viewed their commercial practices as detrimental to the United States - at the time earned him support from Democrats and labour unions.

But by the late 1980s, Chrysler took a downturn and thousands of employees were laid off in order to save the company.

Mr Iacocca left Chrysler at the start of the 1990s, and later launched an ultimately unsuccessful hostile takeover bid of the company with billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.

He said the Great Depression of the 1930s had a lasting impact on his outlook, especially after his family - Italian immigrants - lost everything. "The Depression turned me into a materialist. I was after the bucks," he said.

When Chrysler was in trouble, he accepted a US$1 salary. But when it recovered, he took home as much as US$20 million a year.

"No matter what you have," he once said, "it's never enough."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2019, with the headline 'Auto industry legend Lee Iacocca dies at 94'. Print Edition | Subscribe