The world has lost a big name in the American automotive industry, with the news that Lee Iacocca, the man behind the Ford Mustang, passed away on 2 July; he was 94.
Born Lido Anthony Iacocca on 15 October 1924 in Pennsylvania to Italian immigrant parents, he began his working life at Ford in 1946 as a student engineer, but was soon looking for a new direction.
“The day I arrived, they had me designing a clutch spring,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It had taken me an entire day to make a detailed drawing of it, and I said to myself: ‘What on earth am I doing? Is this how I want to be spending the rest of my life?’” His aim was to get into sales and when he did, his career took off.
Indeed, in November 1960 he took the role of vice-president and general manager of the Ford Division, before becoming vice-president of the marque’s car and truck group in ’65, and executive vice-president two years later.
He was made President of Ford on 10 December 1970.
But what Iacocca was arguably best known for was the Mustang; some even dubbed him ‘The Father of the Mustang’.
Convinced that there was a market for a small, sporty but affordable car for the US market, Iacocca oversaw a design competition with Ford’s ranks to come up with the solution, a contest won by the Lincoln-Mercury design studio headed by Joe Oros. And although he didn’t directly design the car himself, Iacocca continued to champion the project and see it through to fruition.
The new ‘Pony car’ launched in 1964 and was a massive success; to date more than 10m units have been sold and the Mustang’s arrival created a whole new category within the industry.
However, the Mustang was far from Iacocca’s only big success. After his well-documented departure from Ford in 1978 following a major falling out with Henry Ford II, he joined Chrysler the following year and spearheaded the company’s revival from its then-perilous position.
As chairman of the Chrysler Corporation, he had to convince the US government that the firm was worth saving in order to secure funding to do just that.
At times using proposals that had been rejected by his previous employer, under Iacocca’s leadership and with models such as the K-car line Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries, as well as the minivan, Chrysler found its feet – and sales success – transforming family transport in North American in the process.
The image at the top of this page shows him launching the first minivan, which went on sale for the 1984 model year.
Iacocca was proud of and often spoke about his immigrant roots and how America rewarded hard work, something he clearly wasn’t afraid of himself.
In March 1983 he featured on the cover of Time as “Detroit’s comeback kid”, cementing his status not just as an automotive executive, but also as one of the first corporate celebrities.
He stayed with Chrysler and led its acquisition of AMC in 1987, eventually retiring from the company at the end of 1992.
In a statement, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles described him as “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.
“Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today – one that is characterised by hard work, dedication and grit. We are committed to ensuring that Chrysler, now FCA, is such a company, an example of commitment and respect, known for excellence as well as for its contribution to society.
“His legacy is the resiliency and unshakeable faith in the future that live on in the men and women of FCA who strive every day to live up to the high standards he set.”
Outside the automotive industry, he established The Iacocca Family Foundation in 1984 in memory of his much-loved wife Mary, the mother of his two daughters, who died in ’83 following a long battle with diabetes, to fund research into the condition.
He married twice more, the first annulled, the second ending in divorce after a few years.
In retirement, Iacocca lived in the Bel Air area of Los Angeles, California, and it was here, at home, that he died yesterday of complications from Parkinson’s disease.