US car industry legend Lee Iacocca dies aged 94

Father of the Ford Mustang and saviour of Chrysler succumbs to complications of Parkinson's disease

03 July 2019 - 11:48 By afp
Lee Iacocca introduces the new 1965 Ford Mustang to the media in the Ford Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.
Lee Iacocca introduces the new 1965 Ford Mustang to the media in the Ford Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.
Image: Ford

Automobile industry legend Lee Iacocca, who is credited with creating the iconic Ford Mustang and saving Chrysler from bankruptcy, died on Tuesday at the age of 94, US media reported.

Iacocca died at his home in Bel-Air, Los Angeles, from complications of Parkinson's disease, his family said.

Chrysler said in a statement that the company "is saddened" by news of Iacocca's death.

"He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a competitive force," it said.

"Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today – one that is characterised by hard work, dedication and grit. His legacy is the resilience and unshakeable faith in the future that live on" in the company's employees.

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The man behind the Ford Mustang

Iacocca began his career in 1946 at the Ford Motor Company, first as an engineer and then in sales.

It was his talent in marketing that helped realise his full potential.

Iacocca's first sales campaign in the mid-1950s was so successful that it attracted the attention of company executives and brought him to the Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.

'No matter what you have,' Iacocca once said, 'it's never enough.'

Iacocca reaped in massive sales over his career, particularly with the Ford Mustang that he designed in 1957.

However, he was accused of plotting against chairman Henry Ford II in a quest to reach the top company position.

In a 1992 interview, when Iacocca was asked about the seemingly Machiavellian scheme, he snapped back with characteristic sharpness: "Machiavelli my ass!"

Ford fired him in 1978, so Iacocca moved to the floundering Chrysler Corporation.

'If you see a better car, buy it!'

In 1979, the US government bailed Chrysler out of potential bankruptcy with $1.5bn in secured loans. Iacocca took the reins once more and implemented a painful restructuring process.

He had twisted the US congress's arm for the loan, and he successfully brought Chrysler back from the brink, then paid off the loan ahead of schedule.

Under his leadership, Chrysler invented the minivan and, later, the suburban utility vehicle (SUV).

His famous line in Chrysler ads, "If you find a better car, buy it!", turned him into a legend.

At the time, Iacocca's fierce anti-Japanese views – he viewed their commercial practices as detrimental to US – earned him support from US Democrats and labour unions.

But by the late 1980s Chrysler took a downturn and thousands of employees were laid off to save the company.

Iacocca left Chrysler at the start of the 1990s and later launched an ultimately unsuccessful hostile takeover bid of the company with billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.

He said that the Great Depression of the 1930s had a lasting impact on his outlook, especially after his family, Italian immigrants, lost everything.

"The Depression turned me into a materialist. I was after the bucks," Iacocca said.

When Chrysler was in trouble, he accepted a $1 salary. But when the company recovered, he took home as much as $20m a year.

"No matter what you have," he once said, "it's never enough."