Mark Phelan: Lee Iacocca gave people what they wanted, whether they knew it or not

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 8, 2019

“If you can find a better car — buy it!”

Equal parts bravado and marketing genius, that pugnacious challenge in TV commercials defined Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler CEO who seemed to know what customers wanted before they did and who convinced a skeptical public and the U.S. government to give the automaker a second chance when the company had few assets beyond the square-jawed pitchman’s confidence and charisma.

Iacocca, who died Tuesday at 94, will forever be linked to two vehicles that changed the auto industry and launched countless competitors: the Ford Mustang and the Chrysler minivan. Iacocca trained as an engineer, but his genius was marketing and the ability to recognize engineers who would lead the teams creating legendary vehicles.

He rode that gift to a celebrity that went beyond the auto industry, writing bestsellers, becoming a superstar CEO, occasionally being touted as a potential president.

At his core, though, Iacocca was a salesman, endlessly confident of his ability to persuade, endlessly certain his products would succeed.

Iacocca’s confidence — with significant help from young Michigan Congressman Jim Blanchard, who would go on to be Michigan governor and U.S. ambassador to Canada — helped Chrysler win $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees to avoid bankruptcy in 1979.

It was an unimaginable sum at the time. Few people expected Chrysler to survive, let alone flourish, but Iacocca paid the loans off early, and with interest. The government made millions, banks made hundreds of millions and Chrysler was on its way to earning billions.

Iacocca looked like he never doubted that moment would come, a confidence familiar to anyone who saw him unveil the Ford Mustang at the 1964 World’s Fair. The sporty little car that few within Ford had believed in went on to sell nearly 1.5 million units by the end of 1966.

Iacocca and trusted associate Hal Sperlich recognized the Mustang’s potential at Ford, and probably had the same tingling Spidey sense nearly 20 years later when they unveiled the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans.

The Mustang and minivans changed what American roads looked like, a pair of must-have vehicles with nothing in common but the insight that led to their creation.

Another 20 years down the road, Chrysler called Iacocca out of retirement for commercials pitching the hit 300C sedan with rapper Snoop Dogg.

After the lunch at which the ads were unveiled, Iacocca, a first-generation American son of Italian immigrants, told me his favorite recipe for risotto. There was nothing extraordinary about it: chicken stock, arborio rice, a couple of spices. But when Lee Iacocca spoke, you had to have it.———