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Auto executive Lee Iacocca, who rescued Chrysler and helped launch the Ford Mustang, dies at 94

Lee Iacocca was a Nantucket summer regular. He
Lee Iacocca was a Nantucket summer regular. He (Joe Schmelzer/Globe File Photo)

Lee Iacocca, the brash, brusque, and innovative automotive executive who headed both Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. in the 1970s and 1980s, and whose efforts helped give us the Ford Mustang, the Plymouth K-Car, the minivan, and the Dodge Viper, died Tuesday at age 94 in Los Angeles.

The cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Lia Iacocca Assad told The Washington Post.

Mr. Iacocca, the son of Italian immigrants, was known in the tight society of Detroit’s auto industry as “the Flamethrower,” a reference to the heat, intensity, and take-no-prisoners style with which he approached any project, be it the development of a car or the salvation of an entire car company.

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It was this intensity that helped him save Chrysler in the early 1980s after many had given up on the smallest of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. And it was this same intensity, coupled with reverence for his immigrant roots, that helped him raise nearly a quarter-billion dollars in the mid-1980s for the nonprofit Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, money used to restore the statue and repair the island’s neglected buildings, through whose doors millions of Americans’ ancestors had passed.

“Nicola Iacocca, my father, arrived in this country in 1902 at the age of 12 — poor, alone, and scared,” Mr. Iacocca wrote in his best-selling 1984 autobiography. “As the boat sailed into New York Harbor, my father looked out and saw the Statue of Liberty, that great symbol of hope for millions of Americans.”

Nicola Iacocca would sail past that statue once again, having returned to Italy in 1921 to bring back his aging mother. In Italy, he met and married Antoinette, the 17-year-old daughter of a shoemaker. Both women were with him on deck as he returned to America.

Lido Anthony Iacocca was born Oct. 25, 1924, and raised in the tough industrial town of Allentown, Pa., where he was picked on by other boys for his Italian heritage, yet, he would point out years later, not as badly as local Jewish boys.

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He attended Lehigh University, where he earned an engineering degree, and Princeton University, where he received an advanced engineering degree.

He joined Ford Motor Co. in 1946 as an engineering trainee and rose to head its truck division and later its car division. It was as head of the car unit that he scored his first big hit with the introduction, in 1964, of the popular Mustang. By 1970, he had been named president of Ford, a job he held for eight years, despite being at seemingly constant loggerheads with the equally brash and domineering Henry Ford II, leader of the family dynasty.

On July 13, 1978, Ford fired him, telling him simply, “Sometimes you just don’t like somebody,” according to Bill Vlasic in The Detroit News.

There were whispers that Ford feared the son of immigrants might gain too much power in the family dynasty. But there was also the concrete fact that Mr. Iacocca was pushing ideas Ford did not share: smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, a partnership with Honda to build those cars, and an odd concept in the American auto world called the minivan.

By Nov. 1 that same year, Chrysler had scooped him up as its new president. Chrysler at that time was bleeding money, was vastly overstaffed with white-collar executives who seemed to do little more than push paper, and was building big, inefficient cars that were not terribly reliable.

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Mr. Iacocca wanted smaller cars and a smaller company — one that would not have to sell so many cars just to break even. The gasoline shocks of the 1970s had convinced him of the need to produce more-efficient cars. The payroll at Chrysler convinced him the company needed downsizing.

He closed 20 plants, won $1.2 billion in concessions from the unions (telling them he had lots of jobs at $17 an hour but none at $20), and slashed the ranks of white-collar workers.

Then he turned to the government for help, telling Congress that $1.5 billion in loan guarantees was about half of what it would cost if Chrysler failed and all its workers collected unemployment benefits.

Congress approved the guarantees, and Chrysler later drew on $1.2 billion of the available money.

Robert Lutz, who later worked at General Motors to help revive that company, worked with Mr. Iaccoca at Chrysler in the mid- and late 1980s, but was at Ford when Mr. Iacocca took over Chrysler. Lutz and Mr. Iacocca butted heads in their Chrysler days. And even in later years Lutz did not have much nice to say about Mr. Iacocca.

Yet he had high praise for Mr. Iacocca in his 1998 book, “Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company.”

Noting that The Wall Street Journal had suggested, in 1979, that Chrysler simply “die with dignity,” Lutz wrote: “But the plucky band of survivors at Detroit’s number three automaker, led by Lee Iaccoca and his rough-and-tumble gang of refugees (and castoffs) . . . would have none of it. Sure, they’d bent the rules in wrangling a $1.2 billion loan agreement . . . but the company had gone through hell and back . . . in pay cuts and concessions.”

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Trimmed down and possessing cash, Chrysler took off.

The K-Cars — badged Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant — were the first front-wheel-drive, transverse-engine, six-passenger cars built in the United States. They sold in huge numbers.

Then Chrysler introduced the vehicle Mr. Iacocca had pushed for back in his days at Ford: the minivan.

Mr. Iacocca went on television to promote the K-Cars, bluntly telling viewers, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

The minivan proved a social and political phenomenon — as well as an efficient way to move families and their gear in an increasingly active America.

Mr. Iacocca became a household name, the symbol of a resurgent US auto industry.

By 1983, Chrysler was making money and paying off its government-backed loans.

Mr. Iacocca’s name was bandied about as a possible US Senate candidate in Pennsylvania or even as a candidate for president. He wanted nothing to do with either job.

Instead, he stayed at Chrysler until 1992, when he retired.

After that he worked with President George Bush on industrial relations with Japan and helped President Bill Clinton get the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in Congress.

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He used his own wealth in personal business ventures — an investment bank, casino gambling, a line of olive oil, and electric bicycles.

His image was tarnished when, in 1995, he was seen as siding with Kirk Kerkorian, a wealthy investor, in a failed bid to take over Chrysler.

When Daimler-Benz did succeed in taking over the automaker, in 1998, it drew Mr. Iacocca’s interest. He approached chief executive Jurgen Schrempp in 2000 and broached a possible return to the automaker. He was rebuffed.

Mr. Iacocca was married three times. His first wife, Mary, died of complications of diabetes. Two subsequent marriages ended in divorce. The last, to Darrien Earle, was a particularly nasty split that became fodder for the tabloids with accusations of mental abuse, adultery, and feuds over property, large and small.