Howes: Singular Iacocca towered among Detroit auto giants

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Lee Iacocca, who died Wednesday at age 94, was Detroit's last Supreme Automotive Leader.

In an auto industry accustomed to giants, Lee Iacocca stood taller than them all.

He defined the long arc of innovation and ignominy culminating in his unceremonious ouster from Ford Motor Co., his arrival atop Chrysler Corp. and his successful effort to avert the financial collapse of Detroit’s No. 3 automaker.

He was the Motor City’s last supreme automotive leader, an icon credited with birthing some of its most enduring models, with rallying official Washington and American consumers to rescue Chrysler 30 years before its 2009 collapse into bankruptcy.

America responded, burnishing his turnaround cred, making him a TV star and giving him a commanding place in the pantheon of auto CEOs. A legend? No question, as legendary as the Ford family scion — Henry Ford II — who fired him with the simple words, “sometimes you just don’t like someone.”

Now Lee Iacocca is gone, dead at 94 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. With him goes the era forged in the aftermath of World War II and the nearly 30 years of prosperity that morphed into Detroit’s first reckoning: the oil shocks, the Big Three’s alarming decline in market share and the financial crisis that nearly tipped his Chrysler into bankruptcy, save for the federal loan guarantees Iacocca wrested from the feds and President Jimmy Carter.

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"He was a very complex person," said Bob Lutz, who Iacocca hired from BMW AG in 1975 to become CEO of Ford Germany and later made president of Chrysler. "He didn't get where he got, and get the results he got, by being the world's nicest guy. He could be ferocious.

"He had a real strong bias for action. He had driving ambition, and that drove the company. He could be cruel when he needed to be" — a trait Lutz, now 87, has seldom seen in the many CEOs he's served over a 50-some year career in the global auto industry.

Iacocca was the rarest of persons in Detroit, leading one of its Big Three after being No. 2 at a second. He starred in Chrysler's own ads when that just wasn't done, even in retirement alongside the rapper Snoop Dogg. He wrote a best-selling memoir to expand a rep shaped by his TV persona. As foreign competition posed an increasingly existential threat to Detroit and its automakers, he encouraged would-be consumers to buy a better car if they could find one — which, in many cases back then, they arguably could.

A schemer? Occasionally, most notably after he’d retired to California and decided in 1995 to join billionaire Las Vegas mogul Kirk Kerkorian's hostile takeover of Chrysler. The attempt failed, souring Iacocca’s relations with his old company before they were later repaired.

A golden gut? He had one, exchanging the dreariness of the engineering he learned at Lehigh University near his hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, for the sizzle of marketing automotive metal in the 1950s and ‘60s, the most golden of ages for Detroit’s automakers.

“He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a true competitive force,” Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said in a statement late Tuesday. “Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today — one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit.”

At Ford Motor Co., Iacocca rose to become president, second to the guy whose name was on the building. He helped birth the iconic Mustang, and 55 years later the sports car’s eponymous variants are the only Ford-brand car models expected to survive the Blue Oval’s all-in-on-trucks-and-SUVs strategy. That oughta tell you something about Iacocca.

At Chrysler, he led development of the minivan, a decades-long staple of soccer moms and mind-the-speed-limit geezers. It still lives, too, in the Pacifica minivan, one of the few remaining models for a pentastar brand increasingly overshadowed by the earnings powerhouses of Jeep and Ram.

And Iacocca's move in 1987 to acquire American Motors Corp. shaped a legacy that shines with each quarterly sales report today. In the deal, Chrysler got Jeep, the most valuable American auto brand in the world, if not one of the world’s most iconic brands. In his final year as CEO, Chrysler launched the Jeep Grand Cherokee, still a cornerstone of the growing brand.

"One mission was to save Chrysler," David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research, said of Iacocca. "Another mission was to prove to Ford that he was a great leader. The conflicts that they had internally at Ford were some things that drove him the rest of his life."

Before the architects of Detroit’s rescue from the global financial meltdown became household names — like FCA's Sergio Marchionne and Ford's Alan Mulally, to name two — Iacocca loomed as a singular figure in Detroit and over the American auto scene. Brash, confident and accomplished, he walked the talk, even if some of his severest critics thought much of it was BS.

He touted American reinvention in the rescue of Chrysler, the first such revival in an era that saw it repeated under the Germans of Daimler-Benz AG, under the hapless private equity sharpies from Cerberus Capital Management LP and yet again under the Italians of Marchionne’s Fiat SpA.

Thirty years before two Detroit automakers — one of them essentially his — begged Congress for multibillion-dollar bailouts, he sought and secured federal loan guarantees to keep Chrysler afloat. And he made sure they got repaid ahead of schedule.

"I really respect him for his strong spirit," said Elaine Mittleman, a lawyer in suburban Washington who served as a financial analyst for the U.S. Treasury during the Chrysler loan guarantees in the early 1980s. "No one else could have carried out the bailout like he did — no way. A car guy. He wanted to save jobs, and obviously he did."

The Chrysler rescue and the success that followed affected Iacocca. He flirted with a run for president after the Reagan era — a notion his more astute handlers advised against, chiefly because they knew The Boss and they understood a president of the United States could have a lot more trouble getting his way than the storied CEO of a Detroit automaker.

He was Old Detroit, the product of an industry operating at its zenith. He predated the global auto era that birthed the Renault-Nissan alliance, DaimlerChrysler AG and the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles now occupying the Auburn Hills space he and his lieutenants envisioned more than 25 years ago.

As much as he loved the trappings of wealth, power and celebrity, some people who knew him well describe a humble streak attached to his roots in Allentown and the kind of everyday people it produced.

"My dad worshiped him, and I know my family had a roof over our heads because of his brilliance and dogged determination to make Chrysler succeed," David Weaver of Dryden wrote in an email about Iacocca. "When my dad retired" as a process engineer "I penned a letter to Mr. Iacocca explaining how much my dad respected him, and he sent a thank you and a congratulatory letter back to my dad. I had it framed and presented it to him. It brought a tear to his eyes."

The public Iacocca used appearances to warn of foreign competition, especially coming from Japan, something his successors at the Detroit Three wouldn't dare do publicly today. He backed trade protection, channeling the current occupant of the Oval Office. He refused to apologize for American workers, the kind of folks who hailed from his Pennsylvania hometown.

The long shadow he cast in the 1980s and early '90s served as a sort of bridge between two eras: that of the all-knowing, charismatic American auto barons like him and his nemesis, Hank the Deuce, and that of the modern, globe-spanning CEOs like his successors at Ford and Chrysler who intentionally build teams from disparate countries and backgrounds.

But TV? He got it, and he didn't lose the knack in retirement. Jason Vines, former vice president of communications at Ford and Chrysler, worked closely with Iacocca at various points in his Chrysler career, including a stint in the mid-2000s when Chrysler persuaded the old boss to co-star in an ad campaign with Snoop Dogg.

"At one point of the commercial shoot," Vines wrote Wednesday on Facebook, "Lido and Snoop were sitting in a golf cart during a break in the filming, not knowing their microphones were still live. Here is what was recorded:

"'You know Calvin (Lee refused to call Snoop anything other than his real first name), my grandchildren are really excited that I am doing this commercial with you.'

"Snoop responded: 'Well, Mr. Iacocca, my grandmother is really excited that I am doing this commercial with you.'"

The son of Italian immigrants and gritty Pennsylvania steel country, Lido Anthony Iacocca was a workingman’s auto executive who clashed with a scion of the industry, lost and exacted the sweetest revenge: success. The rescue he led of Chrysler, and such assets as Jeep and the minivan, remain the backbone of the company today.

Without them, Lido’s Chrysler probably would not be alive and prospering today — and that’s the most enduring legacy of all. RIP.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.