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Lee Iacocca (1924–2019), iconic leader of Ford and Chrysler

by Linnea Crowther

Lee Iacocca was the iconic automaker who helped create Ford models including the Escort and Mustang. Later, he headed Chrysler, helping turn the company from near failure to great success.

Lee Iacocca was the iconic automaker who helped create Ford models including the Escort and Mustang. Later, he headed Chrysler, helping turn the company from near failure to great success. At Chrysler, his innovations included the development of the minivan, which would become a staple of American households. 

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Died: July 2, 2019 (Who else died on July 2?)

Details of death: Died at home in Bel Air, California of complications from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 94.

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Born Oct. 15, 1924, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Iacocca started work at the Ford Motor Co. not long after graduating from Lehigh University and Princeton University, beginning his career in engineering to complement his degree in industrial engineering. He soon moved to sales and marketing, beginning a rise through the ranks of the company that would culminate in the presidency from 1970 to 1978, when he was fired in the wake of the Pinto recall scandal.

Iacocca was among the architects of the Pinto, which was a popular subcompact during the years leading up to the 1978 recall for a structural flaw that resulted in some Pintos bursting into flames after rear-end collisions. Although the defect later was deemed about comparable to problems in competitors’ cars, Ford had trouble living down the public relations disaster, and Iacocca had to go. Iacocca also had a hand in designing not only Ford’s Mustang, but also the Escort and Lincoln Continental Mark III models.

After Iacocca left Ford, Chrysler snapped him up, hoping he could turn around the company’s desperate slump. He did, securing a loan guarantee from U.S. Congress and spearheading new projects including the K-Car and the development of the minivan, as well as the acquisition of AMC, which included the Jeep brand. By the time of his retirement in 1992, Iacocca had turned Chrysler from a company near collapse into a successful one.

Iacocca didn’t slow down much in retirement, joining the boards of the MGM Grand and the restaurant chain Koo Koo Roo, as well as heading EV Global Motors, founding Olivio Premium Products and campaigning for diabetes research. He returned to Chrysler as a commercial pitchman, requesting that his fees and a small portion of sales be donated to his Iacocca Foundation for diabetes research. He wrote three books: “Iacocca: An Autobiography,” “Talking Straight,” and “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?”

Notable quote: “In my book, if you’re not No. 1, you’ve got to innovate.” 

What people said about him: “Before there was a businessman-TV star named Donald Trump, there was Lee Iacocca. He was a famous CEO, and people tried to draft him to run for president. I remember seeing Iacocca all the time on TV commercials in the 1980s. His slogan: ‘If you can find a better car, buy it.’” —CNN commentator Keith Boykin

 “He was always selling something. A product, an idea, himself. He was one of the greatest salesmen in American business history.” —Historian David Lewis

“He’s like Babe Ruth. He hit home runs and he struck out a lot. But he always filled the ballpark.” —Former Chrysler executive Bennett E. Bidwell

“Lee Iacocca — gregarious, immensely able, and family friend — dies at age 94. Created iconic Mustang, brilliantly saved Chrysler in early 1980s and dynamically led effort to restore Statue of Liberty. What a life! Thoughts with his family today.” —Steve Forbes, CEO of Forbes America

Full obituary: Detroit Free Press

Related lives:

  • Steve Jobs (1955–2011), visionary founder of Apple
  • Herb Kelleher (1931–2019), colorful co-founder of Southwest Airlines
  • Roy Lunn (1925–2017), engineer of iconic autos


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