Lee Iacocca - History of Business in the U.S.Identification: Automotive industry executive at Ford and Chrysler who rose to prominence during the 1960’s and 1970’s
Born: October 15, 1924; Allentown, Pennsylvania
Significance: Iacocca led Ford Motor Company during the pinnacle of the American auto industry during the 1960’s, and he saved Chrysler Motors from bankruptcy during the 1970’s.
Born to immigrant parents in Pennsylvania, Lee Iacocca majored in engineering at Lehigh University, then earned a graduate degree at Princeton. In 1946, he began work at Ford Motor Company. Although he started in the engineering division, he found his job tedious and got transferred to sales. During the 1960’s, he led the way in canceling the Ford Cardinal project and promoting a new type of car called the Mustang. The Mustang was an instant sensation and led to a generation of powerful sporty American cars aimed at the youth market. The youth market had previously been dominated by imports and hot rods, and the Mustang model became an icon with tremendous durability.
By the 1970’s, Iacocca found his situation at Ford precarious because of frequent clashes with Henry Ford II. In 1978, Ford convinced the corporate board to fire Iacocca. The former Ford employee took a job as head of Chrysler Motors, which was in dire straits. The once excellent engineering division had fallen into neglect. Chrysler had set up partnerships with floundering European automakers that only worsened the position of the American company. The general economic slump of the late 1970’s added to the gravity of the situation.
Lee Iacocca. (AP/Wide World Photos)
In a controversial move, Iacocca went to the federal government and negotiated an $800 million loan. The request touched off a political firestorm. Opponents blasted it as corporate welfare at a time when services for the poor and unemployed were being slashed. Iacocca succeeded in arranging the loan in 1979 and subsequently turned Chrysler around and repaid the loan by 1983.
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992. In retirement, he remained a corporate celebrity, a role emulated by many but matched by very few executives.
See also: Chrysler bailout of 1979; Henry Ford; General Motors.