Remembering Lido Anthony Iacocca
Remembering a great American icon
I was getting ready to head home from a photo shoot in the San Fernando Valley when I received a text from Mustang Monthly Editor Rob Kinnan. The text read, "You wanna write Iacocca's obituary?" Within seconds I received a message from friend and Mustang historian, Bob Fria. Lee Iacocca had left the building. Gone. It felt the same way learning Carroll Shelby was gone. It really hurt. What do you do with a world without Carroll Shelby and Lee Iacocca? How do you go on knowing these guys aren't here anymore to shake up the joint and inspire those fortunate enough to be around them?
Very few of us even knew who Lee Iacocca was in 1964, but America and the world would soon be introduced to this inspiring, young, and energetic Ford executive. He made the covers of Time and Newsweek that spring amid the Mustang's gala introduction and madness centered on the New York World's Fair and Walt Disney's Magic Skyway, not to mention three television networks on a Friday night in April. Lee Iacocca was a man with vision who managed to take incredible risks throughout his career, yet he enjoyed great success by following baby boomer trends. There was never a risk he took that didn't lead to success. He had a nose for what sold and rejected what didn't. Lee Iacocca was a highly educated engineering guy who loved automobiles, and he knew how to conceive and sell them.
Lee Iacocca was born to Italian immigrants Nicola and Antonietta Iacocca in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on October 15, 1924. Lee inherited his values and work ethic from his father, who taught him the value of a dollar and how to reap the benefits of hard work. Nicola also educated him in the car business. As a child Lee suffered with rheumatic fever and was later found medically unfit to serve in World War II. However, that didn't deter him. He swiftly turned his attentions to higher education, where he attended Lehigh University to achieve his degree; then, it was on to Princeton University for his master's degree in engineering. His college education, coupled with his father's tutorage, groomed him for a successful career in the auto industry.
Around the time Lee was receiving his degree at Princeton (1946), he got the attention of Ford Motor Company, which hired him as a young engineer fresh out of college. It wasn't long before he began to understand his true passion in life—automobile product planning and sales. He combined his knowledge of engineering with his zest for automobiles to launch a long and distinguished career with Ford, and later with Chrysler.
Lee Iacocca's journey in sales began in Ford's Philadelphia sales district in Chester, where he got the attention of Ford corporate (and Henry Ford II) hundreds of miles away in Dearborn, Michigan. He also wooed a receptionist in the Philadelphia office—his longtime sweetheart Mary McCleary, whom he married in 1956 and took with him to Bloomfield Hills outside of Detroit. When Lee arrived in Detroit, he was ready to jump in the saddle. He had a goal—to become a Ford vice president by age 35. In the wake of his brief tenure as president of Ford Motor Company, Robert McNamara moved on to become Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam era. This opened the door for Iacocca, who became a Ford vice president and Ford Division general manager at age 36.
With his new-found corporate freedom came exciting ideas that had been brewing in his mind for some time. His first order of business was to infuse adrenaline back into the Ford Division, which had cultivated a reputation for decidedly boring and stodgy products. He began his vision by spicing up existing Ford Division carlines. He called his plan the "Total Performance" program, with a sporty Falcon Sprint fastback along with a fullsize Galaxie fastback. There was also a Falcon convertible that caught everyone's eye. With the aerodynamic fastback rooflines came a lineup of powerful engines, including the 289, 406, and 427 High Performance V-8s. The Ford Division could finally let its hair down and be the division Iacocca envisioned.
Iacocca launched the "Sporty Ford Car Project," asking for fresh and exciting ideas from his people. He amassed a small team of Ford engineers, product planners, manufacturing types, and bean counters, and they met at the Fairlane Motel on Michigan Ave. down the street from Ford headquarters in the heart of Dearborn. These guys became known as the Fairlane Group. Though a lot of good ideas came from these off-campus meetings, Iacocca was searching for something more. He staged a design competition across the three Ford Design studios: Advanced, Ford, and Lincoln-Mercury. Ford stylists had a limited amount of time to come up with winning designs that had a shot at being the shape and style that got the nod.
It was the stunning entry from the Ford Studio's styling boss, Joe Oros, along with stylists Gale Halderman and Dave Ash that stole the show. Although Oros has always gotten most of the credit for the Mustang's design, it was Gale Halderman who worked with great tenacity to conceive the winning design. Oros took Halderman's work and infused some of his own ideas into the design, which was presented to Ford management as a Ford "Cougar" on a cloudy summer morning in the Ford Design courtyard.
The Mustang went from styling clay to assembly line in a scant 18 months. Iacocca understood the value of building the Mustang on the Falcon platform with the same mechanicals, because it enabled Ford to use existing tooling instead of conceiving an all-new platform and powertrain from scratch. This is what made those first classic Mustangs affordable, at just $2,368 minus shipping and dealer prep. Ford's initial projections were for 100,000 units. The company wound up building 559,441 units in three assembly plants in an 18-month model year. By March of 1966, Ford had built 1 million Mustangs.
By May of 1968, Iacocca took comfort in knowing 2 million Mustangs had been bucked and built in California, Michigan, and New Jersey, not to mention elsewhere in the world in Ford plants as knockdown units to be sold internationally. Even though there was competition from GM and Chrysler, Ford continued to sell the hell out of Mustangs. Iacocca's vision as an affordable sporty car for the masses was a runaway success, getting him extensive media attention from around the world.
While Mustangs were still racking up sales records, Iacocca was working on the 1969 Lincoln Mark III, which was destined to be a classic from the very beginning. At the opposite end of the price spectrum was the Ford Maverick, which was introduced on the Mustang's fifth anniversary, April 17, 1969. Again, the Maverick was Iacocca's tradition of following baby boomer trends. Mustangs were for the college crowd and families who wanted a sporty second or third car in 1964. The Maverick, which replaced the Falcon in 1970, was affordable at just $1,995, making it cheaper than the Falcon and the Mustang. It was even cheaper than the hot-selling Volkswagen Beetle. The Maverick was a solid, dependable two-door coupe with six-cylinder power and affordable payments for young people coming of age. Young boomers drove Mavericks to college and started families in their affordable compact cars. And, when they wore their first Mavericks out, they again bought the Maverick—typically with four doors instead of two for the little pint-sized particles and groceries.
Iacocca had his eye on the presidency, but he got socked in the stomach when Henry Ford II decided to hire Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen away from General Motors to run Ford Motor Company in 1968. What Mr. Ford probably didn't understand was that Knundsen's background at Pontiac was going to clash with Ford's corporate culture, which was decidedly different than GM's. Knudsen never stood a chance at Ford, especially with Iacocca loyalists covering Lee's back. Iacocca's contempt for Knudsen grew, largely based on what he was doing to Ford's product line.
In a 2004 Mustang Monthly interview, Iacocca was quoted as saying, "Well, Mustang got into the world of politics. When Bunkie Knudsen came in from GM during 1968, he and Larry Shinoda took the thing and at the stockholder meetings I'd have to listen to, 'Why do you take a winning formula like the Mustang, call it Boss, put a 429ci mill, have to spread it, make it wider and lower? How could you be so dumb?' We got sucked in. Not me. This was Knudsen doing it. I think he wrecked the Mustang." Lee went on to say, "It got heavy. I thought, Whatever happened to my 2,200-pound Mustang? They changed the whole feel and character. We wanted to keep it nimble and small."
It wasn't long before Ford concluded Knudsen wasn't a good fit for the company and fired him. Shortly thereafter Henry Ford II made Lee Iacocca president of Ford Motor Company. It was a grand moment for Lee Iacocca, who had long had his sights on the Ford presidency. When the Mustang became long in the tooth and overweight, Iacocca began to take a long look at Ford's flagship nameplate. The Mustang's redesign became known as the Arizona project, which focused on developing an all-new downsized Mustang for 1974.
Although the Mustang II was considered a rebodied Pinto, it was nothing of the sort. It was the most advanced Mustang ever done with a bolt-on front subframe to isolate noise and vibration, and it sold exceptionally well. In fact, Ford sold over 1 million Mustang IIs in four years—incredible numbers Ford would give anything to have today.
Lee Iacocca's last hurrah at Ford was the Jack Telnack-designed 1979 Mustang. As a shock to nearly everyone in the industry, Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca for no other reason than he just didn't like him in the fall of 1978. Because there had been a lot of friction between the two of them for years, not many Ford insiders were surprised by Ford's decision to terminate Iacocca.
Although the firing came as a huge shock and defeat for Iacocca, he wouldn't be idle long before Chrysler arrived with a proposition he wasn't inclined to refuse. Chrysler presented Lee with a challenge that ultimately became the greatest of his career—saving Chrysler. From that adversity came prosperity in the highly successful K-cars and minivans, just to name two very successful Chrysler carlines conceived by Hal Sperlich, a close friend of Iacocca's who left Ford for Chrysler in 1977. Iacocca didn't save Chrysler without his share of sleepless nights. There would be a government-backed loan guarantee he would have to pitch to Congress and secure to keep Chrysler in business, which was ultimately paid back in the 1980s. A longtime buddy of Iacocca's—Carroll Shelby—joined forces with him to introduce the sporty little Dodge Omni-based Shelby cars like the GLH (Goes Like Hell) turbo-four pocket rocket. The Dodge Viper came later as an answer to Shelby's own two-seat Cobras.
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992, an incredible wrap-up to a lifetime commitment to auto-making, but his commitment to Americans didn't end there. He was never going to prop his feet up and watch Jerry Springer. He remained committed to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island restorations as well as diabetes research inspired by the passing of his wife Mary, who succumbed to this awful disease in 1983. He poured himself into several personal commitments—charities where organizations could use his help.
I will always be indebted to Lee Iacocca for the kindness and precious time he showed me during his last years in this world. It has been a decade since I spent any real time with Mr. I. We shook hands, had a delightful conversation, and worked together doing a nice cover shoot for Mustang Monthly before I shook his hand and said goodbye. I never saw him again.
Photography by Jim Smart and Mustang Monthly archives