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