Lee Iacocca, the legendary automobile executive who became one of the first celebrity CEOs of the modern era after saving Chrysler from bankruptcy, died Tuesday at his home in Bel Air. He was 94.
Iacocca became a household name in the early 1980s after he began appearing in commercials for Chrysler automobiles. He pitched viewers on the quality of American-made vehicles at a time when the Big Three automakers were struggling in the face of intense competition from lower cost, fuel efficient options from Japan and European automakers.
In his Chrysler commercials, Iacocca presented a mix of humility about past missteps and determination to improve on American-made vehicles. Iacocca’s message was a perfect fit with the wave of patriotism that marked the early Reagan era.
“A lot of people think America can’t cut the mustard anymore, that quality counts for nothing and hard work for even less. And commitment? That went out with the Hula Hoop,” Iacocca said in a 1984 Chrysler image spot. “Well, when you’ve been kicked in the head like we have, you learn pretty quick to put first things first. And in the car business, product comes first and product is what brought us back to prosperity.”
Iacocca was also known for delivering the tagline: “If you can find a better car, buy it.”
Iacocca spent 32 years at Ford Motor Co., rising to president after being closely associated with the success of the Mustang. He is featured as a character in the upcoming “Ford vs. Ferrari” feature starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon. Iacocca is played in the movie by Jon Bernthal.
In 1979, Iacocca joined Chrysler after a falling out with Ford leadership. At the time the automaker was listing and facing a whopping $1.7 billion loss. Iacocca persuaded the federal government to help the company stave off bankruptcy with an emergency $1.2 billion loan. The move was politically controversial, but Chrysler paid the government back by 1983 thanks to success of new lines of minivans and sedans.
Iacocca cemented his reputation with a best-selling book “Iacocca: An Autobiography,” published in 1984. In the late 1980s, his name was frequently mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. His other books included 1988’s “Talking Straight” and 2007’s “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?”
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992. Three years later, he teamed with investor Kirk Kerkorian on an unsuccessful bid to acquire Chrysler.
Iacocca’s survivors include two daughters and eight grandchildren.