Former Chrysler and Ford executive Lee Iacocca dies aged 94

Ex-Chrysler boss and Ford innovator Lee Iacocca has died at the age of 94 in Bel Air, California.

Mr Iacocca put the Mustang in Ford’s line-up in the 1960s, and became a corporate folk hero two decades later when he resurrected Chrysler.

He was famous for his TV ads from that time, in which he said: “If you can find a better car, buy it!”

Lee Iacocca
Lee Iacocca

He had a 32-year career at Ford and Chrysler and helped launch some of Detroit’s most significant cars including the minivan, the Chrysler K-car and the Ford Escort.

Former Chrysler executives Bud Liebler and Bob Lutz, who worked with him, said they were told of the death on Tuesday by a close associate of Mr Iacocca’s family.

The son of Italian immigrants, Mr Iacocca reached a level of celebrity matched by few auto moguls – peaking when he was courted as a presidential candidate for the 1988 election.

Mr Liebler, who worked for Mr Iacocca for a decade, said he had a larger-than-life presence that commanded attention: “He sucked the air out of the room whenever he walked into it. He always had something to say. He was a leader.”

In recent years Mr Iacocca was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but Mr Liebler was not sure what caused his death.

He remembers that Mr Iacocca could condemn employees if they did something he did not like, but a few minutes later it would be like nothing had happened.

“He used to beat me up, sometimes in public,” Mr Liebler remembered. When people asked how he could put up with that, his colleague would answer: “He’ll get over it.”

Mr Liebler said Mr Iacocca was the last of an era of brash, charismatic executives who could produce results.

“Lee made money. He went to Washington and made all these crazy promises, then he delivered on them.”

In 1979, Chrysler was floundering in debt. It had a bloated manufacturing system that was turning out petrol-guzzlers that the public did not want.

When the banks turned him down, Mr Iacocca and the United Auto Workers union helped persuade the government to approve loan guarantees that kept the No three domestic carmaker afloat.

Lee Iacocca
Lee Iacocca

Mr Iacocca wrung wage concessions from the union, closed or consolidated 20 plants, laid off thousands of workers and introduced new cars.

In TV commercials, he admitted Chrysler’s mistakes but insisted the company had changed.

The strategy worked. The boxy K-cars — the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant — were bland, basic transportation. But they were affordable, fuel-efficient and had room for six.

In 1981, they captured 20% of the market for compact cars. In 1983, Chrysler paid back its government loans, with interest, seven years early.

The following year, Mr Iacocca introduced the minivan and created a new market that helped the company reach new heights of profitability.