Auto industry icon Lee Iacocca, once one of America’s highest profile business executives and credited with rescuing Chrysler from near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, has died. He was 94.
He was instrumental in the creation of the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler minivan.
Iacocca’s youngest daughter confirmed he passed away of natural causes Tuesday. He is survived by two daughters and eight grandchildren.
Born Lido Anthony Iacocca in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on October 15, 1924, to Italian immigrant parents, he would go on to lead two major American car companies.
Iacocca started working at Ford Motor Company in 1946, and was a major figure in the development of the Ford Mustang — the first vehicle of its kind. He was named president of Ford in 1970, but was fired by Henry Ford Jr. in 1978.
“I began my life as the son of immigrants, and I worked my way up to the presidency of the Ford Motor Company,” Iacocca wrote in his 1984 autobiography. “When I finally got there, I was on top of the world. But then fate said to me: ‘Wait. We’re not finished with you. Now you’re going to find out what it feels like to get kicked off Mt. Everest!’”
He was then hired by Chrysler Corp. in 1978 and became the company’s CEO in 1979. He is credited with saving the company from bankruptcy.
Iacocca urged Congress to authorize the Treasury Department to guarantee $1.5 billion in bank loans for Chrysler. Chrysler needed the bailout to survive back to back recessions in the early 1980s. Chrysler repaid the loans early. Treasury made money on the stock it received as part of bailout packages.
With the help of more fuel efficient and competitive products such as the so-called K-cars — which included the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant — Chrysler became strong and profitable again.
Iacocca led Chrysler during an era in which Asian and European imports first started to take a significant share of the US automakers’ portion of the American car market.
The American consumer may remember him best from a series of Chrysler TV commercials, in which he said, “if you can find a better car, buy it.”
He retired from Chrysler in 1992. In 1995, Iacocca sued the company accusing it of illegally preventing him from exercising stock options. Chrysler then filed suit against him, saying he gave confidential information to Kirk Kerkorian — who tried to take over the company.
Chrysler and Iacocca settled their lawsuits in 1996.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said in a statement that it was saddened by the news of Iacocca’s passing.
“He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a true competitive force,” FCA said in a statement. “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.”
Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, said Iacocca was “truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford.”
Ford said he appreciated Iacocca’s encouragement during Ford’s early career. “He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.”
Iacocca was from another era of American business. In his autobiography Iacocca explains why he adopted the name Lee in place of his Italian birth name Lido. It was the 1950s and he was traveling throughout the East Coast teaching Ford employees how to sell trucks.
“As part of my job, I had to make a lot of long-distance calls,” he said in his autobiography. “In those days, there was no direct dialing, so that you always had to go through an operator. They’d ask for my name, and I’d say ‘Iacocca.” Of course, they had no idea how to spell it, so there was always a struggle to get that right. Then they’d ask for my first name and when I said ‘Lido,’ they’d break out laughing. Finally I said to myself: ‘Who needs it?’ and I started calling myself Lee.”
Dave Alsup, Chris Isidore and Peter Valdes-Dapena contributed to this report.