Lee Iacocca revolutionized what Americans drove

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Lee Iacocca at the introduction of the Mustang in 1964 at the New York World's Fair | Ford photos

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.

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Iacocca in the 1960s | Detroit Historical Society

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.

Mustang at the Ford pavilion

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.

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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.

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Early Mustang advertising

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.

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Carroll Shelby transformed the Mustang into the GT350

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.

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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.

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Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and SPEED.com, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I remember hearing him being interviewed one day and the line was that his mother had a premonition about what he was going to be as he said, (as I recall it) Iacocca stood for I am the Chairman of the Chrysler Corporation of America! Always stuck with me!

    • Heading to Carlisle next week, and will make it a point to stop at one of the Yocco’s hot dog and pierogi stands in Allentown, as that is also a part of the family business the Iacoco’s were known for.

  2. He was a man who did wonders for the American car world! Also with his work restoring the two American sites!

    • Lee Iacocca was destined for greatest. He was a visionary and marketer who also had the wherewithal to know the “what” and “how” t o make things happen and stay viable. Fifty years later his legacy remains as strong as imagined. RIP Lee!

  3. As a 60’s kid I grew up buying & reading car magazines .
    The name Lee Iacocca was always in the pages or cover of Road & Track , Car & Driver he was the Man .

    He saved Chrysler with the K-car and the Chrysler Mini Van that started the Mini Van craze in America .

    And of course the da’ Mustang will always have Lee’s stamp on it .
    He was a visionary , savvy businessman , and was knew the Auto industry inside and out .
    RIP Lee Iococa, well done , well done ..Sir !
    The City of Detroit , Ford , GM and Chrysler should give him
    a very Respectful Send off !
    He had a great career !

    Ed Callender ,Car Enthusiast

    • Now the auto company leaders are too busy making human drivers extinct. Iacoca designed and built cars that we wanted to drive, for the most part. Don’t think there’s too many people out there who think an 80’s era Dodge Caravan is the most exciting ride in the world! But without that Caravan of the 80’s, we wouldn’t be talking about the Charger Hellcat of today. Chrysler Corp. would have folded some 30+ years ago. RIP Mr. Iacoca.

  4. I Dan Bell recall having Lunch with with Lee and Roger Kenyon of Kenyon Dodge in Clearwater Fla. in Orlando just a few days before we were not sure if we were getting the loans to continue and reconstruction Chrysler or were we going to be come Used Car Dealers. Lee I sure will never for get you my friend. RIP

  5. Lee iacocca was a born leader. A brilliant automotive leader. His repaying Chrysler’s loan from the government, when Big Old GM waffled on their loan. A MAN of his word. He also made a CD disc set entitled, "Where are our Leaders"? I am 80 years old. Currently own a 1957 T-bird. (I graduated in 1957) Have bought and sold about 10 Mustangs and 138 of the 1955,1956,1957 little Birds. I own a 2006 Ford F150, so I am a Ford person all the way. God Bless America on this 2019 FOURTH OF JULY.

  6. I was in the high school marching band at Lakewood High School in NJ. We marched from the entrance of the Fair to the NJ Pavilion. I went to the Ford Pavilion and saw the new Mustangs.

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