Lee Iacocca, a visionary and well-known automotive executive whose impact on the industry is felt to this day, passed away Tuesday at his Bel Air home in Los Angeles, Calif. from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. He was 94.
Iacocca pioneered automotive financing in the 1950s, helped champion the Ford Mustang in the 1960s, ran Ford Motor Co. in the 1970s, and in the 1980s saved Chrysler Corp. from bankruptcy. He also approved plans to introduce the world’s first minivan (a Chrysler), and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Financing is an every-day occurrence in the modern auto industry and Mustang, minivans, and Jeep Grand Cherokee still are top-selling vehicles for Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA).
In 1978, the sometimes-controversial Iacocca was fired by Henry Ford II, chairman of Ford, for personal reasons. From there, Iacocca joined Chrysler. After he retired from Chrysler, he tried to take over the company in an ill-fated coup with billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.
Any animosity between Iacocca and Chrysler has since dissipated. Iacocca also led the way for Chrysler to build its headquarters, design, and testing facilities in Auburn Hills, moving from Highland Park.
FCA said in a statement that it “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. 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.
“Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today – one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit,” the statement continued. “We are committed to ensuring that Chrysler, now FCA, is such a company, an example of commitment and respect, known for excellence as well as for its contribution to society. His legacy is the resiliency and unshakeable faith in the future that live on in the men and women of FCA who strive every day to live up to the high standards he set.”
The personal differences between Henry Ford II and Iacocca did not dim that company’s feelings about its former president.
“Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry, and our country,” says Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford. “Lee played a central role in the creation of Mustang. On a personal note, I will always appreciate how encouraging he was to me at the beginning of my career. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.”
While many credit Iacocca as the mastermind of the Ford Mustang, the car was developed in secret at the automaker under the watch of Donald Frye, a former vice president and chief engineer, along with Hal Sperlich, a special projects assistant who advocated for the sports car to be built on the Ford Falcon chassis. The move saved the automaker some $400 million in development costs.
As the car went through the early design phase, nothing seemed quite right, so Iacocca asked that the designers provide ideas of their own. The idea worked, as the competition among the designers brought forward what we now know as the Mustang. Iacocca also helped find production room for the car from two different plants.