Jim Smart
July 19, 2019
Contributers: Jim Smart

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.

Ford stylist Gale Halderman, who worked closely with Lee Iacocca, put a fastback roofline on the Mustang. Halderman was also largely responsible for the winning Ford Studio design that became the Mustang.

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.

Ford's Le Mans-winning GT supercar inspired Mustang GT as a midyear introduction for 1965. Iacocca's marketing strategy was to tease the introduction of options a few at a time, which kept buyers coming back to Ford showrooms.

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 Checkered Flag/Green Flag sales competition early in 1964 enabled a select few Ford dealers to reap the success of high sales numbers. Checkered Flag winners got new Pace Car White Mustang hardtops. Green Flag winners were afforded the option of buying one at cost. Approximately 200 are shown here. Winning dealers could have them shipped or drive them home. Iacocca presented the keys to each winner.

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.

Thanks to Iacocca's vision, Ford couldn't build new Mustangs fast enough. The Dearborn, Michigan, plant became overwhelmed quickly, making it necessary to bring San Jose on line in July 1964, and later Metuchen, New Jersey, in February of 1965.

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.

Dearborn Assembly was Mustang's spiritual home for 40 years, building well over 6 million Mustangs in that time. Iacocca knew that in order for the Mustang to be both affordable and popular, it had to share its sheetmetal and mechanicals with Falcon and other compact carlines.

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.

Iacocca instructed product planners and stylists to change the Mustang—yet not change it. 1967 was a smashing success thanks to more sculptured lines and a wider track. 1968 (shown) got off to a rough start thanks to a crippling UAW strike that lasted three months. This strike gutted 1968 sales numbers.

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.

Although Iacocca lost ground to Bunkie Knudsen in 1968, the Mustang benefited from Knudsen's presence and GM-buddy Larry Shinoda's ability to conceive the hot Boss Mustangs for 1969-1971.

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.

Iacocca and Mr. Ford at a stockholders' meeting in the 1970s. Their relationship tended to be a battle of egos and genius that ended badly in 1978.
Lee Iacocca as Chrysler chairman in the 1980s.
Lee Iacocca on our cover in 2004.
Introducing the Mustang all over again in 1973 with the all-new downsized Mustang II. Despite the rotten tomatoes the Mustang II gets, Ford sold over a million of them in four years. Someone liked them. What's with that tux, Lee?
Lee Iacocca wandered into the public eye as Chrysler chairman in the 1980s, pushing K-cars and minivans between segments of Dallas and Miami Vice. The buying public loved his commercials and quickly grew to know and love him as Chrysler's pitchman.
Iacocca in 2006 with the '65 Mustang his lifelong friend Hank Carlini built for his 50th birthday. Although it has often been said that Iacocca owned Mustangs during his years at Ford, this has never been true. He drove corporate-owned Mustangs as well as a lot of competitor vehicles for evaluation purposes. This Caspian Blue convertible is the only classic Mustang he ever owned outright.
Lee Iacocca and Arnold Marks of Mustangs Etc. chat during our 2009 Mustang Monthly cover shoot at his home in Southern California. Arnold, who was a dear friend for many years, lost his battle with cancer and dementia last year. Both men are terribly missed.
Lee Iacocca's vision for a sporty Ford car changed the face of the American highway.
Car magazines like our own MotorTrend tested Mustang extensively, which was exactly as marketing types like Iacocca envisioned. Ford handed out Mustangs to the press like candy in an effort to secure buyers. It worked.
Lee Iacocca at the Petersen Automotive Museum in 2007.
Mustang historian and retired United Airlines Captain Bob Fria (left), Arnold Marks, and Lee Iacocca converse at a 2007 press function at the Petersen Automotive Museum. The 1963 Mustang II was on display for a short time at the Petersen.
Iacocca chatting it up with fans at the Iacocca Mustang introduction in 2008 at Galpin Ford.
This Mustang Monthly cover shoot in 2009 would be the last time I would see Lee Iacocca, who happened to be enjoying his morning coffee beneath the L.A. gloom and his own Iacocca Edition Mustang.
That's me with Iacocca's Hank Carlini-crafted '65 Mustang convertible.

Photography by Jim Smart and Mustang Monthly archives