MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Ford Motor Company and Other Websites
Published 7.10.2019

Lee Iacocca was born October 15, 1924 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Lehigh University in 1945 and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton in 1946. After graduation, Iacocca joined Ford Motor Company as an engineering trainee.

Iacocca and Mustang with engineer Don Frey and Ford Falcon RESIZED 1Lee Iacocca on the right with the Ford Mustang with engineer Donald Frey on the left with the Ford Falcon (Ford Motor Company)

One of the biggest accomplishments in Iacocca’s career came when he was directly involved with one of most successful cars of all time -- the Ford Mustang. Beginning in 1961. Iacocca felt that the quality conscious American public wanted something different in automotive design that would change the way consumers look at the American automobile. Iacocca and his research team gathered information on what kind of car Americans wanted: how big or small, how much power and, most importantly, styling. The research team spoke with many consumers, and the results mirrored Iacocca’s hypothesis – that many people wanted something different and unique in an automobile.

Resized Ford Design Studio Mustang images by Edward Bailey for Time Magazine 1964 Ford Motor Co 2Ford Design Studio Mustang images by Edward Bailey for Time Magazine, 1964 (Ford Motor Company)

Iacocca put together a great team of Ford’s automotive designers and engineers, including Hal Sperlick, Gar Laux, Donald Frey, Joe Oros, Eugene Bordinat -- Vice President of styling, and many others. The first concept Mustang I was unveiled at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix on October 7, 1962. The second modified concept model Mustang II was introduced at Watkins Glen the following year. The first production Mustang was introduced to the public at the New York World’s Fair on April 13, 1964 with a price tag of $2,455. The Mustang helped to write a great automotive historical chapter in Iacocca’s career at Ford Motor Company. In 1970, he was promoted to president of Ford. However, after his relationship with Henry Ford II soured, Iacocca was fired in July of 1978.

Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II RESIZED 3Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II (Ford Motor Company)

In November of 1978, Lee Iacocca became CEO and Board Chairman at Chrysler Corporation, the parent company of Chrysler Motors, Chrysler Financial, Gulfstream Aerospace and Chrysler Technologies. At the time he came on board, Chrysler was spiraling toward bankruptcy. Iacocca went to Congress seeking government help to keep the nation’s third largest automaker afloat in 1979. On May 10, 1980, U.S. Treasury Secretary G. William Miller announced the approval of nearly $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for Chrysler. At the time, it was the largest bailout package ever offered by the government to an American company. Under Iacocca’s leadership, it should also be noted that the Chrysler repaid the loans with interest seven years ahead of schedule in 1983.

April 1964 Time Magazine cover featuring Lee Iacocca 4April 1964 Time Magazine cover with Lee Iacocca

Iacocca became the face of Chrysler and its lead pitchman, introducing their line of "K" Cars in 1980 with a popular advertising campaign featuring the slogan “If you can find a better car, buy it!” Another great achievement was Iacocca’s introduction of the Chrysler Minivans in 1983 for the 1984 model year. Minivans created an entirely new category of vehicle and gave a big boost to Chrysler’s sales that is still talked about among automotive historians.

Resized March 1983 Time Magazine cover with Lee Iacocca at Chrysler 5March 1983 Time Magazine cover with Lee Iacocca at Chrysler

In 1987, Chrysler purchased American Motors from Renault, adding the legendary Jeep nameplate to its popular brand lineup. When Iacocca introduced the new Jeep, the ad campaign advised to “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way!” The new Grand Cherokee was manufactured at the new Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit. Finally, when the company made a mistake with an odometer-tampering scandal, Iacocca got in front of the problem, saying “Did we screw up? You bet. We’re human.”

Resized Lee Iacocca with Chrysler K Car Portland Press Herald 6Lee Iacocca with a Chrysler K Car (Portland Press Herald)

In 1992, Iacocca retired from the Chrysler Corporation. One year later, President Clinton spoke with Iacocca in conjunction with promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement. He passed away last week on July 2 at the age of 94. His legacy and dedication to the auto industry will be remembered in our American culture and history books for many generations to come.   

 Resized Lee Iacocca with check paying off government loan to Chrysler Auto News 7Lee Iacocca celebrates with the check paying off the government's bailout loans to Chrysler (Auto News)

Lee Iacocca collage including Ford Mustang and Dodge Viper CarandDriver.com 8Lee Iacocca collage including Ford Mustang and Dodge Viper (CarandDriver.com)

Bibliography

Time Magazine. “Ford’s Lee Iacocca.” April 17, 1964, Pg. 92, Vol 83, No. 16.

Serrin, William. “Ford’s Iacocca: Apotheosis of a Used Car Salesman.” The New York Times Magazine. July 18, 1971.

Smith, David C. “How Iacocca Builds Empire Within Ford.” Detroit Free Press, August 30, 1970.

Abodoher, David. “A Man and His Mustang.” Michigan, the Magazine of the Detroit News. October 10, 1982.