Lee Iacocca’s greatest claim to fame, at least for collector car people, is that he was the visionary Ford executive who made the Mustang happen.
Lido Anthony Iacocca, who became known as “the father of the Mustang,” died Tuesday at the age of 94 at his Bel Air, California, home from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
He was a dominant figure of the Detroit auto industry during the 1960s through the 1980s, heading in succession the Ford and Chrysler car companies. He was a colorful and impactful leader who also became a well-known fixture in popular culture.
Iacocca also is the father of the modern minivan, another revolutionary product that he promoted during his presidency at Chrysler. But it’s for the Mustang that he is most revered.
Mustang continues to reign as America’s favorite collector car in all its permutations, as it continues to be updated and produced by Ford as it has continuously for the past 55 years – last year, Ford celebrated the 10 millionth Mustang to roll off the assembly line.
Nearly everybody has a Mustang story — owning them, restoring them, collecting them, or just having a Mustang be a memorable part of personal history.
Although the Mustang was not his project but that of Ford designers and engineers under his leadership, it took Iacocca to recognize that the sporty little car built on the underpinnings of the compact Falcon was something revolutionary, and that it would become a huge hit among US drivers, young and old, male and female.
Sure enough, after Mustang’s official debut on April 17, 1964, at the New York World’s Fair, and its unveiling at Ford showrooms across the country, more than 22,000 were sold on the same day. Ford rang up sales of more than 400,000 for the original “pony car” during the following year, making it the most-successful new-model launch in U.S. automotive history.
The 4-seat Mustang, in coupe, fastback and convertible forms, may have been a hot seller in various levels of trim and performance, but it took Carroll Shelby to wring the most out of them.
As Shelby tells the story, his phone rang one day and the voice on the line was that of Lee Iacocca, at the time the general manager of the Ford Division.
“You have to help me make a sports car out of the Mustang,” Shelby recalled Iacocca saying in a statement that was more request than question.
Shelby was busy building and racing his own Cobras, but since those cars depended on engines supplied from Ford, he and his team applied their magic and turned what was considered something of a “secretary’s car” –cute and nimble but still merely a compact Falcon-based coupe that looked more like a sports car than it really was – into the race-winning, even Corvette-beating Shelby Mustang GT350.
At Chrysler, where Iacocca generally was credited with turning around and saving the company (thanks in part to billion-dollar bailout loans from the federal government), he bought American Motors and its Jeep brand for Chrysler. He retired from Chrysler in 1992.
When Chrysler finally paid back its loans to the government in 1983, Iacocca touted the automaker’s recovery as an American success story. In recognition of his leadership, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the effort to restore Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, which Iacocca, always proud of Italian immigrant heritage, zealously undertook.