Former Chrysler Corp. CEO and Chairman John J. Riccardo, who guided the automaker through difficult economic times in the 1970s, died on Saturday. He was 91.

Mr. Riccardo was best known for requesting government loans to save the automaker in the late 1970s and recruiting his successor, former Ford Motor Co. executive Lee Iacocca, in 1978.

Mr. Riccardo was born on July 2, 1924, in Little Falls, New York, the son of a bicycle maker, reads a 1975 profile in the New York Times. He was a corporal in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps in World War II before receiving bachelor and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Michigan.

Known as “the flamethrower” for his direct, sometimes brusque approach to problems, he rose through Chrysler’s ranks as a protege of Lynn Townsend, whom he succeeded as chairman and chief executive officer in 1975. Prior to leading Chrysler, he was president from 1970 until October 1975.

He joined Chrysler in 1959 as a financial officer after working as an accountant at Touche, Ross, Bailey & Smart, a predecessor of today’s Deloitte LLP. Over the years his titles included vice president of Chrysler of Canada, sales manager at the Dodge division and assistant general manager of the Chrysler-Plymouth division.

Mr. Riccardo, at age 55, announced his retirement days after Jimmy Carter’s administration — for which he had been the company’s liaison — rejected his request to aid the automaker, which was on the brink of bankruptcy. An article from The Detroit News at the time of his retirement cited “reasons of health” for Mr. Riccardo leaving the company but he also said that “in the minds of many I am closely associated with the past management of a troubled company.”

“It would be most unfair to the new management and to the employees of Chrysler if my continued presence as board chairman should in any way hinder the final passage of our request for federal loan guarantees,” Mr. Riccardo said at the time.

Carter’s administration ended up helping the company in 1980 with $1.5 billion in loan guarantees, in exchange for federal oversight of the company’s business operations. Under Iacocca, Chrysler ended up using $1.2 billion of the available funds and paid back the guaranteed loans in 1983, seven years earlier than required.

Iacocca, in his 1984 self-titled biography, commended Mr. Riccardo: “He blew himself out of the water to bring Chrysler back to life And that is the test of a real hero.”

Although history will remember Riccardo most as a businessman, his son – the Rev. John Riccardo Jr. — will remember him most as a spiritual family man.

“My dad is the greatest man I ever met, and I met (Pope) John Paul many times,” he said during a Sunday eulogy during Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel church in Plymouth, Mich. “He’s the greatest man I ever met, not because of his career; not because of all the gifts he had; he’s the greatest man I ever met because of his faith.”

Riccardo Jr., according to audio posted online, said his father’s priorities were “God, family and work.”

A representative of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV — the modern owner/iteration of Chrysler Corp. — was not immediately available for comment on the Presidents Day holiday on Monday.

In addition to his son, Mr. Riccardo is survived by his wife, Thelma; and four other adult children.

Visitation is 3-8 p.m. Thursday at Lynch & Sons Funeral Home, 1368 N. Crooks, Clawson. A funeral mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at Holy Name Parish, 630 Harmon, Birmingham.

Detroit News wire services contributed.

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