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Who Was Lee Iacocca?

by Lisa Diggs

If you’re under forty and living, it’s entirely possible that the name Lee Iacocca means nothing to you, yet his was once a household name. The automotive giant passed away yesterday due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease. Throughout his ninety-four years he made a seemingly immeasurable impact on the country, and particularly here in Michigan.

A child of Italian immigrants who grow up in humble surroundings, Iacocca became one of the most powerful, and best-known executives in Detroit history. He ushered in vehicles that forever changed the landscape, saved a gigantic company, and became a marketing wonder.

Iacocca joined Ford Motor Company in 1946, and quickly rose through the ranks. By 1970 he became the company president, but there was a fly in the ointment. He clashed with Henry Ford II, who eventually fired him. A move that in retrospect had an incredible impact on the Detroit area and the industry as a whole. Chrysler Corporation was in desperate straits by 1979, and brought Iacocca in as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

It quickly became obvious that Chrysler would go out of business if it did not receive a huge infusion of cash. Iacocca approached the U.S. Congress and successfully requested a loan guarantee. In order to obtain the guarantee, Chrysler was required to reduce costs and abandon some longstanding projects, but the gamble paid off. Thousands of American jobs were spared, particularly in Michigan. 

During his career, Iacocca become closely associated with at least three iconic vehicles. If you can’t imagine America’s automotive history without the Ford Mustang, you have Iacocca to thank. He has been widely credited as the father of that piece of iconic Americana, which debuted in 1964 at the World’s Fair in New York. To this say, the Mustang remains the best-selling sportscar of all time.

While not nearly as widely remembered now, the K-Car, a take on a project that was nixed at Ford, helped Chrysler pull out of its financial slump. It wasn’t the car itself that was so special, but the way it was made. Iacocca realized that the company had to keep a huge number of parts in inventory to make its wide range of vehicles, and the complexity of building many completely different versions of cars was one reason Chrysler was losing so much money. Beginning with the K-Car, he directed the engineers to focus on making a smaller number of common parts where they would not be visible to customers, which is in common practice today.

The third of his auto design break-throughs is a vehicle most kids have ridden in at some time or another. Working with his former Ford colleague, Hal Sperlich, who joined him at Chrysler, he gave the green light to minivans. For years, that class of vehicles would become the most profitable products in the Chrysler line.

In the end, the legend, who had once started as an engineer, knew that his truest skills were in his ability to sell. He knew how to market a product or an idea, both behind the scenes and in front of a camera. As part of the reengineering of Chrysler, he gained unprecedented fame for a CEO by staring into the screen and telling potential customers, “If you find a better car, buy it.”

Perhaps his most unusual pitchman moments came when he teamed up with none of than rapper Snoop Dogg to promote an employee incentive discount opportunity in 2005. The ads rolled out in early July. Part of the deal for Iacocca was that, for every vehicle Chrysler sold for the rest of 2005, the automaker would donate $1 to the Iacocca Foundation for diabetes research. His wife, Mary had died from complications of the disease. Later he would tell reporters that is was his not-for-profit work that he considered to be his most significant professional legacy.

Case in point, in May 1982, President Ronald Reagan had appointed Iacocca to head the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. The purpose was to raise funds across the country for the restoration of Lady Liberty and the renovation of Ellis Island. His parents had once arrived in that very port, so Iacocca was passionate about the task at hand. It showed, and he was able to sell that cause to Americans too.  

For those interested in paying their respects:
Viewing is scheduled for 2pm - 8pm on July 9 at Lynch and Sons Funeral Home in Clawson.
Funeral is scheduled for 11am on July 10 at St. Hugo in the Hills Church in Bloomfield Hills.
Mr. Iacocca will be buried alongside his wife in White Chapel Cemetery in Troy.

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