On this day in 1924 Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca, one of the most influential men in modern American automotive history, was born. The automotive hall of famer was responsible for many incredible feats in the industry throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s while an executive at both Ford and Chrysler.
Due to a childhood illness, Lee was barred from service during WWII. Though this may have saved his life, Lee recalled wanting nothing more than to be a bomber pilot over Nazi Germany. Unable to join the war effort, Lee instead studied engineering at Lehigh University. He would later attend Princeton before joining Ford’s engineering program. Not long after he got his start he found a better fit in sales and marketing. He would be placed on the East Coast, where he’d secure a management role in regional truck sales.
One of Lee’s initial marketing efforts, which put the corporate spotlight on him, was a “56 for ‘56” campaign he utilized in his region. This allowed people $56 monthly payments when they put 20 percent down on a new 1956 Ford. The regional success caused Ford to take the campaign nationwide, bringing in millions of dollars in sales. His creative marketing efforts launched him to VP and general manager at Ford by 1960. In these roles he would participate in the design and launch of many iconic Ford vehicles. It’s hard to mention his career without highlighting his role in conceiving and developing the Mustang and later convincing Henry Ford II to launch it. Ford was still reeling over the losses the company encountered with the Edsel fiasco a few years prior and was not ready to bet on another brand new car. Lee essentially put his job on the line to get the ‘Stang into production. The resulting phenomenon of the pony car would establish Lee as an automotive icon, earning him the nickname “Father of the Mustang.”
Lee was promoted to president of Ford Motor Company in 1970, where he oversaw many more successful vehicles, including the Ford Pinto, a project he started working on in 1968. Despite great success guiding the company through the gas shortages and emissions regulations of the era, Lee faced numerous personal and professional disputes with Henry Ford II. Stating he just doesn’t like Iacocca, Henry fired Lee in 1978, despite annual profits of a record $2 billion.
Following his departure, Lee was actually provided a private office by Ford to use for pursuing new professional paths. When Lee arrived at the location following his last day as president he found it to be in an old warehouse building. He left within 10 minutes, believing Henry Ford purposely gave him a run down space to embarrass him.
Following his release from Ford, Chrysler pursued him in hopes Lee could save the company from certain death due to its massive financial issues. Within weeks of leaving Ford, he was at the helm of Chrysler. While the K-cars were in the design process before he arrived, Lee advised on many aspects that would make them the highly profitable vehicles they became. In the same period he also orchestrated a government bailout of $1.5 billion in loan guarantees. This money allowed him, along with another former Ford executive he had worked on the Mustang with, Hal Sperlich, to pursue a vehicle that Henry Ford II had turned down, the minivan.
Though ready for launch in early 1983, the vans were a risky maneuver for Chrysler, seeing as the company was heavily in debt and this was an untested, brand new type of vehicle, very similar to the Mustang. To clear their financial slate, Lee orchestrated a stock offering to generate new cash flow. It was during this time that Lee’s wife or three decades, Mary, passed away due to complications with diabetes. Lee was distraught, but he pushed through with his plans, knowing an entire industry could be at stake.
The stock offering was a major success and Lee was able to pay back the remaining debt, some $800 million to get Uncle Sam off the company’s back. Free and clear and with Chrysler once again profitable, the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan launched in the fall of 1983, destined to become the best selling vehicle of the era. Though many Chrysler plants were closed and employees laid off in the early 1980s to cut costs that would have killed the company, the launch of the minivans secured the company’s future, saved some 600,000 domestic and 2 million global jobs, and secured Iacocca’s place in the automotive hall of fame.
Lee Iacocca passed away July 2, 2019.
Images via Ford & Chrysler archives.