Lee Iacocca, the mastermind behind the Ford Mustang and the straight-talking captain of Chrysler’s historic U.S. rescue and 1980s turnaround that brought him acclaim as America’s most famous CEO and car salesman, died on Tuesday at home in Los Angeles. He was 94.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Iacocca, a natural huckster and tireless competitor with Italian roots and a penchant for cigars, vinyl car roofs and Greek-temple grilles, defined the role of the imperial American executive — first as president of Ford Motor Co., then as chairman and CEO of Chrysler — for much of the last quarter of the 20th century.
With a sometimes brash, no-nonsense style and fiery tongue, he was the towering public face, corporate pitchman and voice for the American auto industry’s triumphs and challenges.
“I think America is getting an inferiority complex about Japan,” Iacocca lamented before a group of Chrysler executives in one late 1980s TV commercial. “Everything from Japan is perfect. Everything from America is lousy … now that’s got to stop.”
Doug Fraser, the late UAW president and Chrysler director, once pegged Iacocca “a hip shooter deluxe.” Newsweek, in a 1963 profile, said he could be as “direct as the thrust of a piston.” Playboy called him “a businessman of the old school, a guy who smells the territory and goes with his gut.”
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, in a statement, paid tribute to Iacocca as one of the “great leaders of our company and the auto industry … who played a profound role on the national stage as a business statesman and philanthropist.
“Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today – one that is characterized by hard work, dedication and grit.”