Lee Iacocca, father of the legendary Ford Mustang, has passed away due to complications related to Parkinson's disease.
Born on October 15, 1924, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Lido Anthony Iacocca was the son of Italian immigrants. His father Nicola started his working life as a hot-dog seller.
By the end of the Depression, and after lots of ups and down, Nicola was the owner of the (gloriously named) Orpheum Weiner House. He later went on to start a car hire company with a small fleet of Fords.
Due to rheumatic fever and its after effects, Lee Iacocca was exempted from serving in World War II and was able to complete a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering.
Highs and lows with Ford
He joined Ford and soon completed a master's degree in mechanical engineering. Iacocca soon found his talents lay elsewhere, and joined the sales and marketing department in Philadelphia.
In his early years at Ford, and despite pride in his heritage, he changed his name from Lido to Lee – to sound more American.
It was in Pennsylvania he launched "56 for 56", which offered attractive loans of 20 per cent down and repayments of US$56 per week for 1956 model year cars.
The successful campaign went national, and Iacocca was moved to the company's head office to become the head of truck marketing. By 1960, he succeeded his mentor Robert S. McNamara to become general manager of the Ford division.
As division chief, he championed the creation, and was heavily involved in the launch, of the original Mustang.
With its sporty styling and compelling pricing, the Mustang became a best-selling vehicle. Thanks to its mass-market Falcon underpinnings, a million Mustangs were made in the first two years, generating an estimated billion dollars in profit.
In 1970, Iacocca became the president of Ford Motor Company, but reportedly endured a fractious relationship with Henry Ford II, the company's chairman.
For all of his successes, Iacocca's time at Ford was marred by the Pinto, a vehicle he pushed through to fruition. A two-door car measuring just 4.1m long, the Pinto was designed to fight the rising tide of smaller vehicles from Japan.
A few years after going on sale the car was mired in allegations its fuel tank, located aft of the rear axle, could explode or violently catch fire during low-speed rear-end collisions.
A leaked memo, which concluded it would be more cost-efficient to pay off victims rather than the fix the car's issues, didn't help matters. In the end, Ford lost a legal battle over punitive damages, settled out of court with many other victims, and voluntarily recalled 1.5 million Pintos.
Henry Ford II fired Iacocca in July 1978, and reportedly said it was because he didn't like him.
A few months later Iacocca became president and chief operating officer of Chrysler. On the day he began his job in November 1978, the company posted a record loss of US$160 million ($944 million in today's money).
In an interview with Automotive News, Iacocca spoke of what he found when he began his rescue act: "I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know that bad. What I didn’t know was how rotten the system was.
"How bad purchasing was. How many guys were on the take. How rotten it was to the core. That stunned me.”
As Chrysler's financial situation worsened by the day, with the company essentially unable to obtain credit, Iacocca lobbied Congress vigorously for loan guarantees worth up to US$1.5 billion ($5.6 billion in 2019).
With an infusion of cash, new union deals in place, a slimmed-down manufacturing footprint and reduced workforce, Chrysler was able to launch its K-Car range in 1981.
These fuel efficient front-wheel-drive small and compact vehicles were just what the recession-hit US needed. Fuelled by profits from these vehicles, Chrysler paid back its loans ahead of schedule and launched America's first people mover, the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan twins.
Never shy of talking to press or fronting the company's marketing campaigns, Iacocca appeared in television adverts comparing Chrysler vehicles favourably to its Japanese and German competition.
In these he coined his catchphrase, "If you can find a better car, buy it".
In 1987, Iacocca masterminded two takeovers with widely divergent results. First Chrysler bought AMC (American Motors Corporation) for US$1.5 billion (roughly $5 billion today), and then a month later it purchased Lamborghini for US$25.2 million ($83.5 million in 2019).
AMC's Jeep division now provides much of the profit for today's Fiat Chrysler, while Lamborghini was sold in 1994 for US$40 million ($100.4 million today) to MegaTech, a company partially owned by the son of Indonesia's then-president Suharto.
During the late 1980s, Iacocca attempted to diversify Chrysler's income stream and purchased Gulfstream, the passenger jet manufacturer, along with FinanceAmerica, and defence contractor Electrospace Systems.
These acquisitions only served to distract management, and the company soon found itself racking up losses, needing another product-led revival.
In a decision he later said he regretted, Iacocca named Bob Eaton as his successor, rather than Bob Lutz. Eaton famously led Chrysler into the "merger of equals" with Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz.
Life beyond Chrysler
After retiring from Chrysler in 1992, Iacocca still tried to play a part in the industry he had shaped for over two decades, with investments in electric vehicles and buggies.
His most famous intervention was in 1995, when he and his friend, billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, launched a hostile takeover bid for Chrysler.
After much public wrangling, the bid failed and the company abandoned plans to name its new technical centre after its former CEO.
With the passage of time, fences were mended and Iacocca appeared from time to time in Chrysler-related marketing events, including ones involving the Muppets and Snoop Dogg.
On the news of his death, both Ford and Fiat Chrysler released tributes to their former leader.
“Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry and our country. Lee played a central role in the creation of Mustang.
"On a personal note, I will always appreciate how encouraging he was to me at the beginning of my career. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed," Bill Ford, chairman of Ford, said.
Across town, Fiat Chrysler issued a statement stating: "The Company is saddened by the news of Lee Iacocca's passing. He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a true competitive force.
"He was 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."