Lee Iacocca, Father of the Ford Mustang and Savior of Chrysler, Dead at 94

“If you can find a better car, buy it.”

byChris Chin| UPDATED Jul 3, 2019 12:38 AM
Lee Iacocca, Father of the Ford Mustang and Savior of Chrysler, Dead at 94

Lee Iacocca, the world-renowned American auto executive and the man most known as the father of the Ford Mustang, died earlier this morning in his Bel-Air home in California. Iacocca was 94. The famous automotive executive reportedly suffered from Parkinson’s disease in his later years, according to his daughter, Lia Iacocca Assad, who spoke to reporters.

Iacocca isn’t just known for spearheading the launch of the Ford Mustang, he also led the development of the controversial Pinto. But more so, he’s also credited for single-handedly saving Chrysler from bankruptcy in the 1980s by introducing the company’s popular K-Car platform. While America knew him on multiple fronts in the auto industry, Iacocca eventually became the face of Chrysler through the automaker’s TV advertising campaigns over the decades.

He became synonymous with his commercial one-liner, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

Iacocca was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania after his parents immigrated from Italy. His career in the auto industry began in 1946 as an engineer for Ford. He climbed Ford's corporate ladder rapidly and eventually took the vice president position at the ripe age of 36. From there, he spearheaded the launch of America’s most iconic pony car in 1964. And with the introduction of the Ford Mustang, Iacocca inadvertently ushered in a new era of American performance and sports cars, also known as the muscle car.

Detroit, Michigan, 1970: Lee A. Iacocca, photographed under the Ford emblem at a news conference, was elected earlier as President of the Ford Motor Company by the board of directors., Getty Images

He eventually became Ford’s CEO in 1970 and led the development of the Pinto, which marked the beginning of Ford’s attempt at producing subcompact vehicles in North America. The Pinto, however, ultimately brought his stint at Ford Motor Company to an end following its widely publicized controversy after numerous deaths tallied up from the gas tank exploding because of its placement at the rear of the vehicle following rear-end collisions. After numerous investigations by Congress and a number of recalls, Henry Ford II stepped in and gave Iacocca the boot.

But Iacocca’s career in the American automotive sector didn’t end there as he went on to become Chrysler’s CEO. His days of testifying before Congress, however, weren't over as Chrysler was nearly dead and Iacocca had to convince the legislative body and American electorate to provide a federal bailout loan of up to $1.5 billion to save Chrysler. He did and took that opportunity and introduced the company’s hugely popular K-Car platform and essentially saved the Auburn Hills carmaker from going six feet under.

Other financial analysts describe Iacocca’s efforts as being the biggest “individual corporate save” in all American business history. Following his restructuring of Chrysler, he was able to get the company to pay back all its loans amounting to nearly $1.2 billion, plus interest, seven years ahead of time. So it’s safe to say, Chrysler wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for Iacocca.

He was known as a hard-driving, no-bullshit, straight-shooter businessman who made plenty of bold moves and sacrifices to save the companies he worked for. For instance, when trying to dig Chrysler out of its hole, he reportedly reduced his salary down to a dollar a year. 

In the mid-1980s, Iacocca hit the ranks behind President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II in a Gallup poll for the world’s most respected men. He’s also credited for writing one of the best-selling autobiographies of all time.

Getty Images

Although he wasn’t without his controversy, Lee Iacocca’s legacy within the American automotive industry will always be remembered.