LOS ANGELES, California (KETK) – Lee Iacocca, a giant in the auto industry who gave the world the Ford Mustang and Chrysler minivan and saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in the 1980s, has died at age 94.
Iacocca was a true American success story. The son of Italian immigrants, he was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, then a thriving steel town. He earned a degree in industrial engineering and a master’s, then went to work for the Ford Motor Company in 1946, launching his lifelong association with the auto industry.
He began at Ford as an engineer trainee, but eventually became president of the company.
It was during his years at Ford that he came up with the idea of a “Pony car,” a performance/muscle car that was powerful but affordable.
He also is reputed to have understood the potential for the minivan when that design first appeared. Ford passed on it, and, when Iacocca moved to Chrysler, he is said to have taken that idea with him.
He also had his share of controversy at Ford, primarily from the fiasco of the Ford Pinto, which became notorious for its exploding fuel tanks. Iacocca came under intense scrutiny for keeping quiet about the risks the Pinto posed before putting the car on the market.
He was president of Ford Motor Co, for eight years, from 1970-1978, when he was fired by Henry Ford III.
In 1980 he went to Chrysler, where he launched the minivan into production, saved the convertible by introducing the Chrysler LeBaron, and. along the way, saved Chrysler itself.
The company was bleeding money, battered by the disastrous introduction of the Aspen and Volare, which were plagued with shoddy quality and countless recalls.
Iacocca recruited managers who could put quality back into the brand, then, in an effort to keep the company from going under permanently, went to Congress for a bailout. Despite the initial skepticism, he ended up getting almost $1 billion in guaranteed loans.
In an attempt to get Congress on his side, he worked to get the American people on his side. Iacocca was all over television, becoming the very public face of Chrysler. He appeared in commercials for the company’s vehicles, using the famous tag line, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
By 1983, Chrysler had paid off the government loans.
It was also during his tenure that Chrysler acquired Jeep.
Iacocca remained president and CEO until he retired in 1992.
He was just as prominent outside the auto industry. He was named by President Reagan to head the foundation raising funds for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, and founded the Olivio company, which makes olive oil-derived food products and donates all the profits to diabetes research. His wife Mary died from that disease.
He wrote a best-selling autobiography, appeared on talk shows, and was urged by some to run for president.
He even appeared on an episode of the 1980s TV show Miami Vice.
Iacocca died at his Bel Air home Tuesday evening, surrounded by his family.