Lee Iacocca just died. And with him, an era.
The era of the car guy executive.
Iacocca wasn’t a transplant from a toothpaste company — and he was an engineer, not a “human resources” manager. He smoked cigars, told ribald stories.
Most of all, Lido knew cars — and the car business. Put more precisely, he knew how to sell cars by making cars people wanted to buy; this is an art less practiced today.
He is most famous for two cars: the Mustang and the K-car (which became the basis for the tsunami-successful Caravan and Voyager minivans of the Reagan years), though he had a hand in many other cars, as well.
Both cars were just right: their timing, their execution, everything. Proof of this being the incontestable fact that they changed everything.
Before the Mustang — which made its formal debut midway through the ’64 model year — there was no such car as a “pony” car. That is to say, a perky, personal car that could be almost anything needed by anyone. There was the GT version, with its famous “Hi-Po” 289-cubic-inch V8, rumbling at idle, vacuum-hissing through its Holley four-barrel carburetor. Or get a convertible with an economical six.
Or something in between.
Like the VW Beetle, the Mustang was a car for pretty much everyone — but especially the young. Iacocca saw what others were blind to: the coming-of-age cohort of postwar baby boomers, who were looking for the kind of car their parents didn’t drive.
Lee built it for them.
And — per Field of Dreams — they came. In their hundreds of thousands. Each year, for years ongoing.
The Mustang became — and still is — one of the greatest sales success stories in the history of the car business. It is one of almost no other cars that is still in production today — going on 60 years after the fact — without any interruption of production during that entire time.
The rest of the car business bum-rushed to copy the Mustang — the sincerest form of flattery — but none of them nearly as successful. GM scrambled and got its Camaro/Firebird twins to market; Dodge came later, with the Challenger. Of these, only Camaro survived the brutal ’70s — and only just barely (GM almost cancelled Camaro in 1972 and did cancel the performance-minded Camaro Z28 for 1975 and 1976).
Challenger didn’t make it past 1974 — to be resuscitated decades later. Firebird last until 2002 and then was — and is — no more.
The ’70s, of course, were funerary times for everyone in the car business — chiefly because the government had gotten into the business, decreeing design (via bumper-impact and saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety standards) that added weight, expense, ugliness, and other things, such as the gas mileage cars would be forced to deliver and the emissions they’d be allowed to emit.
This forced premature re-engineering of whole product lines as well as Band-Aid engineering of engines not designed to be Uncle-complaint. They didn’t run so well as a result.
These things — along with obstreperous unions — dealt an almost mortal blow to the car industry, or at least the American car industry.
The Japanese made small cars only. They had no capital investment in big cars. Their cars weren’t that well-made, either. But they were light and cheap and easy on gas, which made them more readily Uncle-compliant. Plus, no unions. This gave brands like Honda and Toyota and Datsun (today’s Nissan) an exposed belly to kick, so to speak.
Which of course they did kick.
It was around this time that Iacocca jumped ship from Ford to Chrysler — something that Ford probably regretted after the fact.
At the time, it probably seemed like a sound idea.
Late-seventies Chrysler was slow-motion croaking; it lacked money to reboot, and it was having a hard time selling outdated Cordobas, even when saddled with the infamous “Corinthian” leather seats and anointed by Ricardo Montalbán. The cars actually weren’t that bad relative to the other cars of the time. But they were “gas hogs” at a time when hogging gas was not tenable because of extortionate gas prices — and gas lines — as well as government regs.
But Lee had another car in mind, one he’d tried to pitch to Ford management but one they foolishly (as it turned out) rejected.
It was based on the K-car, Chrysler’s new line of then-very-new (for American car companies) front-wheel-drive small cars, engineered to save the company and pay back the loans the company secured via the government, persuaded by Iacocca.
The K-Car and Voyager/Caravan minivans are today the punchlines of countless jokes, and their names are synonymous with enfeebled shitbox transportation modules. Which is exactly what they were. But that was exactly what Americans wanted and needed at the time.
People were dealing with double-digit interest rates and Weimarian inflation and the last thing they needed was a single digit MPG dreadnought they couldn’t afford to buy — or feed.
The mid-late ’60s were a time of exuberance and passion; the mid-late ’80s were a time of austerity and necessity.
Lee saw this, too.
Once again, he changed the entire car business – because the entire car business wheeled around to imitate what Chrysler was doing. Within a few years, everyone else was selling Me Too minivans, too. But Chrysler’s vans always sold better, and — like the Mustang — they have lasted longer.
Chrysler still sells minivans. GM and Ford no longer do.
Lee Iacocca was the kind of car executive the car companies no longer want. Which explains why the car business isn’t doing so hot.
He brought sense to the table as well as passion — each at exactly the right time.
Anyone who feels something for cars owes Lee a salute. Here’s mine.
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