Lee Iacocca RIP – I’m Not Going To Get Invited To His Funeral

I have less than twenty minutes before I have to run to the airport to pick up Stephanie and her mom. So what can I say very quickly about one of the biggest legends (and egos) that the car business ever produced?

Here goes:

He was a master salesman, and as any good salesman, he knew what his customers wanted. Note: not needed, but wanted. That’s the single biggest kernel of Lee’s approach to the business. And one that the changing priorities of Americans eventually caught up with him, as it turned out that what Americans really wanted was extremely reliable, durable and well-made cars. As made by the Japanese. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I have more than 90 seconds, but that does encapsulate the story in one sentence.

The longer version: He intuitively knew that Americans were largely dominated by fads and automotive  passions. The dominant fad/passion in the 50s and early 60s was sports cars. They were impractical, but that’s what folks saw as being cool, desirable, and a way to break out of the humdrum of boring sedans. Sports cars were to the automotive scene what the beatniks were to the cultural scene. We wanted a part of that life, because it sure looked a lot more exciting than driving a sedan to the factory every day. And as this picture makes all-too obvious, sports car fever infected even middle-aged Americans.

But they were invariably better off financially, so that they could indulge their hobby, as the Missus was not likely to be driving the MGA to the Safeway on Monday morning.

It was Chevrolet, which already had the only genuine sports car, that saw the opening. Their 1960.5 Monza coupe brought sports car flair and feel to the masses. By 1961, it was a certified major hit; 282k Corvairs were sold in 1961, the majority Monzas. That’s equivalent of some 550-600k in today’s market. That would make it the best selling passenger car, by a huge margin.

Lee saw the Monza for what it was, and wanted in. he pivoted Ford towards sport and performance.

He had the Plain Jane Falcon transformed into the Mustang, and hoped that he could sell 100-150k per year. 680k 1965 Mustangs were eagerly snapped up during its extended first year. He must have thought he was dreaming. Who could have imagined? And it was the Mustang that killed the Corvair, not Ralph Nader.

The pony car fad turned out to be a very short-lived one; by 1971 it was washed up, and the Mustang barely cracked 100k by 1972. But Lee didn’t have to wait for its decline to come up with his real knock-out punch: the brougham. In 1965 already, he launched the Ford LTD, which launched the Great Brougham Epoch. Just like with the Mustang, he wasn’t the first: the trend had been there for some time, and was gathering momentum; Lee just kicked on its afterburners.

And the 1968 Mark III cemented Ford’s dominance of the Brougham Epoch, upstaging the 1967 Eldorado, which was still trying to probe the outer edges of design. Not the Mark III, and just about every bigger Ford (and later Chrysler) thereafter for way too long: the Iacocca formula was cast, and Lee would be highly resistant to letting it go, even thirty years later.

Henry Ford II claimed he fired Lee in 1978 because he just didn’t like him. Maybe it was because HF had somewhat higher expectations than having his name on what we dubbed “The Most Malaise Car Ever” (1975 Granada). But then Ford was about to fall off a cliff, thanks largely because the Iacocca formula was the wrong thing at the time of the second energy crisis as well as fatigue. Ford had a near-brush with bankruptcy after Lee left, and then reinvented itself in the aero and Quality Is Job #1-image. Quite the jump.

I almost forgot the Maverick and Pinto; maybe just as well.

Lee’s second act turned out to overshadow the first. He became the Savior of Chrysler, and as such ascended to the Pantheon of America’s heroes of the 1980s, including a very close brush with a run for the Presidency. No, Lee didn’t “invent” the K-car; it was pretty far along when he arrived. But he did find the money to build it, in the form of a $1.5 billion federal loan guarantee, repaid within four years. Lee did quickly did put his stamp on the K-Car, in the form of the mini-Mark LeBaron, the first of a long line of FWD K-based Iaccoca-mobiles.

The minivan was not his idea either, but he figured it was worth a relatively low-cost gamble. And Lee hit the jackpot with it, again. It was the minivan’s much larger profits that really turned Chrysler around, and made Lee the highest paid exec in the industry, with an $18 million paycheck in 1987 (cash and stock options).  Iacocca used Chrysler’s new-found riches to buy AMC from Renault, sensing (rightly) that the Jeep Cherokee was the other hot new product along with the minivan. Chrysler was on a roll.

Lee’s ego grew along (or exceeded0 the growth of Chrysler in the late 80s and early 90s, although he ended up having to be pushed out the door in 1992, as he was trying to hold on to the now-archaic Iaccoca-mobile format for way too long. And trying to make a run at buying Chrysler with his buddy Kirk Kerkorian in 1995 didn’t exactly warm the cockles of his successors.

Speaking of, Chrysler had its peak run in the mid ’90s, with the new cab-forward cars that broke the Iacocca-mobile mold as cleanly and completely as possible. But in a way, it was just all an extension of Iaccoca-thinking: lots of sizzle and not much steak. I won’t belabor the point, because it goes against the commonly-held wisdom that Chrysler was so glorious before Daimler destroyed it, but my take is a bit different. Every one of the cab-forward car lines were rushed and had lots of quality corners cut, and it ultimately came to bite Chrysler in the butt.

I’m not eager to put my generally negative feelings about Iacocca on display at this time, but we’re here to look at his professional life and judge him accordingly. I see in Lee everything that ultimately took down the Big Three: stuck in 1950’s thinking, to the end of his days. Meaning, putting the flash, fake RR grilles, tufted velour and padded roofs (among others) ahead of solid engineering, a commitment to quality, and a genuine vision for where the car industry needed to go.

Lee’s a genuine hero to many, and I have no desire to take away their adulation. But as a car guy, I’ll leave it with this: except for a brief 11-year old’s fascination with the original Mustang, there was never an Iacocca-mobile I ever really wanted, respected or admired. I reluctantly drove two; the first a 1985 Reliant for two two months as a company car. It was crude, cheap and primitive; like a something from Eastern Europe at the time. I was very happy the day I ditched it. And the other one, a ’92 Grand Caravan, we bought only because Stephanie insisted, and it ate no less than four transmissions and four ABS pumps. That was more than enough for me. Never again would an American car grace our driveway.

As they say, there’s a sucker born every minute. Sorry if this is a bit harsh, but all of this is why the Big Three don’t build anything but trucks anymore. Too bad Lido missed out on that fad, mostly. We might have had luxury pickups with giant chrome grilles a lot sooner. A Ram Imperial? One could say they’re the final incarnation of the Iaccoca-mobile, a fitting tribute to his ability to know what Americans really wanted.

I better stop before I dig myself a deeper hole. But maybe you all can find a bit more love for Lido. Bring it on…


For a more detailed look at Lee Iacocca’s life and career, the NYT has a very fair and balanced article here.