Before the auto industry’s one-name dynamos like Sergio and Carlos, Barra and Mulally defined their automotive generation, there was Iacocca.
He was Detroit's last supreme automotive leader, an icon credited with birthing some of the Motor City's most enduring models, with managing through an existential crisis by rallying official Washington and American consumers to rescue Chrysler Corp. 30 years before its 2009 collapse into bankruptcy.
They responded, burnishing his turnaround cred and commanding place in the pantheon of auto CEOs. A legend? No question, as legendary as the Ford family scion — Henry Ford II — who fired him with the legendary words, “sometimes you just don’t like someone.”
Now Lee Iacocca is gone, dead at 94 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. And with him goes the era forged in the aftermath of World War II and the nearly 30 years of prosperity that culminated in Detroit’s first reckoning: the oil shocks, the Big Three’s alarming decline in market share and the financial crisis that nearly tipped Chrysler into bankruptcy, save for the federal loan guarantees Iacocca wrested from the feds.
A giant? Iacocca could be, the only person to lead two of Detroit’s Big Three. He starred in Chrysler's own ads when that just wasn't done. He wrote a best-selling memoir to burnish a rep shaped by his TV persona. As foreign competition posed an increasingly existential threat to Detroit and its automakers, he encouraged would-be consumers to buy a better car if they could find one — which, in many cases back then, they arguably could.
A schemer? Occasionally, most notably after he’d retired to California only to join forces with billionaire Kirk Kerkorian in 1995 to mount a takeover of Chrysler. The attempt failed, souring Iacocca’s relations with his old company before they were later repaired.
A golden gut? He had one, exchanging the dreariness of the engineering he learned at Lehigh University near his hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, for the sizzle of marketing automotive metal in the 1950s and ‘60s, the most golden of ages for Detroit’s automakers.
“He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a true competitive force,” Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said in a statement late Tuesday. “Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today — one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit.”
At Ford Motor Co., where Iacocca eventually rose to become president, he helped birth the iconic Mustang, and 55 years later the sports car’s eponymous variants are the only Ford-brand car models to survive the Blue Oval’s all-in-on-trucks-and-SUVs strategy. That oughta tell you something about Iacocca.
At Chrysler, he led development of the minivan, a decades-long staple of soccer moms and mind-the-speed-limit geezers. It still lives, too, in the Pacifica minivan, one of the few remaining models for a brand increasingly overshadowed by the earnings powerhouses of Jeep and Ram.
And his move in 1987 to acquire American Motors Corp. shaped an Iacocca legacy that shines with each quarterly sales report today. In the deal, Chrysler got Jeep, the most valuable American auto brand in the world, if not one of the world’s most iconic brands. In his final year as CEO, Chrysler launched the Jeep Grand Cherokee, still a cornerstone of the growing brand.
Before the architects of Detroit’s rescue from the global financial meltdown became household names (at least around this town), Iacocca loomed as a singular figure in Detroit and over the American auto scene. Brash, confident and accomplished, he walked the talk.
He touted American reinvention in the rescue of Chrysler, the first such revival in a modern era that saw it repeated under the Germans of Daimler-Benz AG, again under the hapless private equity sharpies from Cerberus Capital Management LP and yet again under the Italians of Sergio Marchionne’s Fiat SpA.
Iacocca even flirted with a run for president after the Reagan era — a notion his more astute handlers advised against, chiefly because they knew The Boss and they understood a president of the United States can have a lot more trouble getting his way than the storied CEO of a Detroit automaker.
He was Old Detroit, the product of an industry operating at its zenith. He predated the global auto era that birthed the Renault-Nissan alliance, DaimlerChrysler AG and the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles now occupying the Auburn Hills space he and his lieutenants envisioned more than 25 years ago.
The long shadow he cast in the 1980s and early '90s served as a sort of bridge spanning two eras: that of the all-knowing, charismatic American auto barons like him and his nemesis, Hank the Deuce, and that of the modern, globe-spanning CEOs like his successors at Chrysler who intentionally build teams from disparate countries and backgrounds.
Thirty years before two Detroit automakers — one of them essentially his — begged Congress for multibillion-dollar bailouts, he sought and secured federal loan guarantees to keep Chrysler afloat. And he made sure they got repaid ahead of schedule.
The son of Italian immigrants and gritty Pennsylvania steel country, Lido Anthony Iacocca was a workingman’s auto executive who clashed with a scion of the industry, lost and exacted the sweetest revenge: success. The rescue he led of Chrysler, and such assets as Jeep and the minivan, are the backbone of the company today.
Without them, Lido’s Chrysler might not be alive and prospering today — and that’s the most enduring legacy of all. RIP.