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Allentown native Lee Iacocca, automotive giant, dies at 94

Lee Iacocca, the Allentown native and Lehigh University graduate who helped develop the iconic Ford Mustang and became a corporate superstar by resurrecting the Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s, died Tuesday at his home in the Bel-Air area of Los Angeles. He was 94.The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his daughter, Lia Iacocca Assad.Iacocca, born Lido Anthony Iacocca to Italian immigrants Nicola Iacocca and Antonietta Perrotta in 1924 in Allentown, was one of the most recognizable figures in the business world in his 1980s heyday.Lee Iacocca, the automotive industry legend, died on July 2, 2019,  in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles. He was 94. Iacocca is known for his decades of car-producing brilliance, including his involvement in developing the iconic Ford Mustang, introduced in 1964, and later as the CEO of Chrysler, for saving the company from collapse in the early 1980s. Here, Chrysler Corporation Chairman Iacocca sits in a 1990 Dodge Viper sports car as the “Chrysler in the ’90s,” a six-city tour which highlights Chrysler’s effort to overcome Japanese competition, makes a visit on March 28, 1990, to New York. (Osamu Honda / AP/)His no-nonsense, bigger-than-life persona was perfectly captured by the dust jacket photograph of his 1984 book “Iacocca: An Autobiography.” Leaning back in a desk chair, hands clasped behind his head, the boss exudes the confidence and satisfaction of a man at the top of his game.At the time, he was. The book became one of the biggest sellers of the 1980s as readers sought insight into the business philosophy of the man who had restored life to the moribund Chrysler, which had been sliding toward bankruptcy for years.Iacocca, whose parents founded hot dog shop Yocco’s — a variation of a surname locals found hard to pronounce — graduated from Allentown High School in 1942. He earned a degree in industrial engineering from Lehigh University, took courses at Princeton University and went to work as an engineer with the Ford Motor Company in Philadelphia in 1946.Gary Iacocca, Lee Iacocca’s cousin and owner of Yocco’s said, “His is an iconic name. He was a great father to his two daughters and a great patriot.” Now in its 97th year, Yocco’s is a third-generation family business.The family was wealthy for a few years before the Great Depression, but Nicola Iacocca lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. The family’s economic suffering was a driving force in Lee Iacocca’s ambitions for financial success.In his sophomore year of high school, a bout of rheumatic fever led to paralysis in his legs for a time. This kept him out of competitive sports and later out of military service during World War II. He channeled his vigor into academics and the debating society. He became class president and a member of the National Honor Society.He completed a bachelor’s degree at Lehigh in three years and, after graduating in 1945, won a fellowship for graduate study in engineering at Princeton University. “I wasn’t interested in a snob degree,” he wrote in his memoir, speaking of the Ivy League degree. “I was after the bucks.”President of Lehigh University’s board of trustees Harold S. Mohler with commencement speaker Lee A. Iacocca, chairman and C.E.O. of the Chrysler Corp. in 1983. (Bernard J. Suess / THE MORNING CALL/)At Ford, he made his name developing the Mustang, the quintessential muscle car. But over time, he feuded with owner Henry Ford II and was finally ousted in 1979.Iacocca arrived at Chrysler in September of that year, courted by Chrysler executives wagered the man behind the Mustang could bring the same magic touch to their company.Bringing Chrysler back to life was a long and painful process: plant closings, massive layoffs of white-collar and blue-collar workers, production cuts. Even with those steps, Iacocca sought, and received, $1.5 billion in loan guarantees from Congress.In the meantime, Iacocca hired a new marketing team, which scored with its “ram tough” truck campaign. The introduction of K cars was another boon. In those years of gas shortages and price hikes, they were a fuel-efficient alternative to the Japanese imports that had been dominating the market.Iacocca himself appeared as the face of Chrysler in television commercials, uttering his famous pitch line “If you can find a better car, buy it.”The corporation paid off the government loans in 1983 and, the following year, earned $2.4 billion. President Ronald Reagan, an admirer, asked Iacocca to lead the fundraising for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty.Because of his success, friends urged Iacocca to run for president. He declined, but was always ready to offer strong opinions about the leadership qualities of politicians and the state of the economy.In the mid-1980s, he ranked behind only President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II in a Gallup-poll list of the world’s most respected men. He was admired for his shrewdness and his visceral desire to win. His self-titled 1984 memoir, written with author William Novak, was on the bestseller lists for 38 weeks and sold more than 6.5 million copies.A bona fide celebrity, Iacocca socialized with Frank Sinatra, roused thousands of high school students to their feet at commencement speeches, led fundraising efforts to refurbish the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and was feted like a rock star at political gatherings.Iacocca retired in 1992, but stayed in the public eye. He devoted his energy to leading the Iacocca Foundation, which he had founded in 1984 to fund diabetes research after his first wife, Mary, succumbed to the disease.In 1995, Iacocca assisted businessman Kirk Kerkorian in a bid to take over Chrysler. It failed, but that didn’t mark the end of Iacocca’s relationship with the company. In 2005, he appeared in a commercial campaign, appearing with rapper Snoop Dogg in one spot and “Seinfeld” actor Jason Alexander in another.Iacocca never minced words. In a 2007 book, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone,” he tore into what he considered the ineptitude and fecklessness of Congress and the Bush administration.Lee A. Iaccoca filming a commercial for Chrysler during his stint as chairman. (Courtesy of Chrysler Corp. / DAIMLERCHRYSLER/)”We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane, much less build a hybrid car,” he wrote.In the same book, he lamented the 1998 Daimer-Chrysler merger, which happened seven years after he retired from Chrysler.“I gave 15 years of my life to saving that company, and now I wondered if it was worth it,” he wrote.Iacocca’s reputation was not without tarnish. At Ford, he oversaw production of the Pinto, a bestselling subcompact that was found to have a deadly flaw — a gas tank vulnerable to explosion in rear-end collisions because of its positioning and lack of protection.A 1977 investigation by Mother Jones magazine — titled “Pinto Madness” — concluded that Iacocca shortened the production period by half in his eagerness to get the Pinto in showrooms, and designers and engineers were reluctant to tell him of problems.Under pressure from the federal government, Ford recalled 1.5 million Pintos and a similar car, the Mercury Bobcat, in 1978. But the company would still suffer a huge blow when a jury awarded $127 million in damages in a lawsuit filed by a man badly burned in a Pinto collision.Later, Ford was charged with reckless homicide in the state of Indiana in connection with another Pinto crash that killed three teenage girls. It was the first time a company was charged criminally for a defective product. Ford was cleared of the criminal charges and settled with the plaintiffs.In 1956, Iacocca married Mary McCleary, a receptionist at the Ford sales office in Chester. Around that time, Iacocca worked his way up to assistant sales manager of the Philadelphia district. He tried a sales gimmick that caught the attention of Robert McNamara, the future defense secretary, who was then the company’s vice president in charge of all car and truck divisions.”I decided that any customer who bought a new 1956 Ford should be able to do so for a modest down payment of 20 percent followed by three years of monthly payments of $56,” Iacocca wrote in his memoir. “I called my idea ’56 for ’56.’ “The plan was so successful that in three months, sales of Fords in the Philadelphia district shot to first place from last. McNamara so liked the idea that he made it part of Ford’s national marketing strategy. The company later estimated that the idea was responsible for selling 75,000 additional cars.In 1960, McNamara became president of Ford. Iacocca replaced him as vice president and general manager of the Ford car and truck divisions. He was 36, one year beyond the goal he had set for himself for achieving a vice presidency.To his job, Iacocca brought a new concept in sales and styling that was fundamentally different from McNamara’s. McNamara, he said, had a “deep conviction that a car was a means of transportation, not a toy.”McNamara was primarily concerned with basics, such as fuel efficiency. Iacocca, not so much. Based on market research, Iacocca saw that younger buyers were beginning to dominate the market. The design and appearance of a new model was critical. Cars coming off the Ford assembly lines had to be more than reliable, efficient and functional. They had to look good, what Iacocca described as “a car you could drive to the country club on Friday night, to the drag strip on Saturday, and to church on Sunday.”The result was the Mustang.Months in advance of its debut, an aggressive promotional campaign was launched. Editors of college newspapers were loaned Mustangs to drive several weeks before the official introduction date. Television networks were blanketed with Mustang commercials.In its first year, the Mustang sold 418,812 models, a record for Ford products, and it generated $1.1 billion in profits for the company. The Mustang was a phenomenon – it made the cover of the major newsweeklies and had a pivotal cameo in the police drama “Bullitt” (1968), with ultracool movie star Steve McQueen behind the wheel.Buoyed by the continuing success of the Mustang, Iacocca earned a series of promotions that culminated in his appointment as Ford’s president in 1970.After Mary’s death, Iacocca married advertising executive Peggy Johnson and later restaurateur Darrien Earle. Both marriages ended in divorce.In addition to his daughter, Lia Iacocca Assad of Laguna Beach, California, survivors include another daughter from his first marriage, Kathryn “Kate” Iacocca Hentz of Cohasset, Massachusetts; a sister; and eight grandchildren.The Washington Post contributed to this story.Morning Call reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6598 or
Source: Morningcall

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