Allentown’s Lee Iacocca’s secret sauce was innovation
In the mid-1960s, many teen boys, even before they could drive, wanted a Mustang.
So did many teen girls.
Just ask “Mustang Sally” (a Top 20 hit in 1966 for Wilson Pickett).
The Mustang was a point of pride for those in the Lehigh Valley who knew that the Pony Car, as it was dubbed, was the brainchild of Allentown native Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca, President of Ford Motor Company (1970-1978). Iacocca would go on to become President-CEO of Chrysler Corporation (1978, and Chairman in 1979) before retiring in 1992.
Iacocca, born in Allentown, Oct. 15, 1924, to Nicola Iacocca and Antonietta Perrotta, who emigrated from San Marco dei Cavoti, Benevento, Italy, died in his residence in Bel Air, Los Anglees, Calif., July 2, 2019, of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 94.
Iacocca had married the former Mary McCleary, who died in 1983 of complications from diabetes. They were the parents of Kathryn Iacocca Hentz and Lia Iacocca Assad, who survive him, as does his sister, Delma Kelechava, and eight grandchildren.
Lee Iacocca wasn’t a one-trick pony. He was the father of niche marketing in the automobile industry. He was an auto market segment disrupter. He’s credited with at least two other automotive product milestones: the Chrysler K-Car and Chrysler minivan.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles stated of Iacocca: “He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a true competitive force.
“He was one of the great leaders of our company and the auto industry as a whole. He also played a profound and tireless role on the national stage as a business statesman and philanthropist,” Fiat Chrysler stated.
Bill Ford, Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman, stated that Iacocca was “truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford. He was one-of-a kind and will be dearly missed.”
Iacocca graduated from then Allentown High School in 1942, received a BS in industrial engineering from Lehigh University in 1945 and a Masters in mechanical engineering from Princeton University in 1946.
In 1987, he founded the Iacocca Institute at Lehigh University, with its goal to make American industry more competitive internationally.
In 2011, he launched Lehigh’s Iacocca International Internships program. Iacocca Hall on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus is named in his honor.
Stated Lehigh University President John D. Simon, “Lehigh lost not only a great man but a great friend as well. His dedication to Lehigh was unwavering throughout the years. His extraordinarily successful career served as an inspiration for generations of students.
“And, through his vision for the Iacocca Institute’s Global Village and the Iacocca International Internships, Lee made it possible for the world to come to Lehigh and for our students to have life-changing educational experiences that prepare them to thrive on the world stage,” Simon stated.
Lehigh University Board of Trustees Chair Kevin L. Clayton, stated that Iacocca was an “extraordinary business leader, whose notable accomplishments were surpassed only by his generosity.
“Lee Iacocca served as an inspirational industry icon for decades, and his name has become synonymous with a legacy built from grit, determination, focus and an unwavering sense of optimism and pride for this country and what we can accomplish,” Clayton stated.
In 1982, in a nod to his roots, Iacocca accepted an appointment from President Ronald Reagan to head the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, raising $277 million to renovate the statue, completed in 1986, and the reopening in 1990 of Ellis Island as a museum of immigration.
In 1984, Iacocca founded The Iacocca Family Foundation, which has funded more than $45 million in diabetes research.
He co-authored the best-selling books, “Iacocca: An Autobiography” (1984) and “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” (2007).
He began his career as an engineer at Ford Motor Company in 1946, but requested a transfer to sales and marketing.
As Philadelphia District Assistant Sales Manager, Iacocca devised the “56 for ‘56” campaign, whererby loans on 1956 Fords were offered with a 20 percent down-payment and $56 per month payments for three years. Iacocca was soon summoned to Dearborn, Mich.
There, in 1960, Iacocca was named Ford Division Vice President and General Manager; in 1965, Ford Car and Truck Group Vice President, in 1967, Executive Vice President, and in 1970, President.
Iacocca, who allegedly clashed with Henry Ford II, was fired in 1978, a year when Ford had a $2-billion profit.
Iacocca had deep Lehigh Valley roots. His uncle, Theodore, founded Yocco’s in 1922. The name was derived from a mispronounciation of the Iacocca last name by Pennsylvania-Germans, nee Pa.-Dutch. Yocco’s was run for many years by Julius and Albert Iacocca. Yocco’s, with six Lehigh Valley locations, is owned and operated by Julius’s son, Gary Iacocca, and his son Chris.
It was and is emblematic of the Iacocca family that, instead of resisting the Pennsylvan-Dutch locals’ mangling of their name, they adopted it, made it work, even celebrated it. “The secret’s in the sauce,” the Yocco’s adage for its popular hot dogs, might well apply to Lee Iacocca for his leadership in the automotive industry.
In one of his TV commercials for Chrysler, Iacocca said, “In the automobile industry, you either lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Lee Iacocca’s secret sauce was his audaciousness for innovation.
Iacocca, as Ford Motor Co. Ford Division General Manager, backed the Mustang project: one-part Ford Falcon compact car platform with Ford Fairlane mid-size car interior, chassis, suspension and drivetrain components, and one-part T-Bird concept car inspired styling.
The Mustang was introduced as a 1964 1/2 model at the Ford Pavilion, April 17, 1964, at the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, N.Y. The Mustang found a niche when the Ford Thunderbird ballooned from a nifty two-seater answer in 1955 to the Chevrolet Corvette introduced in 1953.
With a long purposeful hood, large intake grille that influenced designs decades to come, symbolic side sculpture suggesting racing intake vents to cool the rear brakes, and pony emblem that gave the car its nickname, the Pony Car in hardtop, convertible and fastback models was a hit with males and females, young and old.
The Mustang was Ford’s most successful launch since the Model A in 1927. An estimated 418,000 Mustangs were sold in its first model year. In 18 months, more than one million Mustangs were manufactured, netting $1.1 billion in profits in two years. Iacocca and the Mustang landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1964.
Ford Motor Company may have stopped manufacturing passenger cars as of 2019, but it hasn’t stopped making the Mustang, now in its sixth-generation design.
The Mustang gave Ford a needed image and sales boost in the mid-1960s, not only on the showroom floor where its styling influenced the entire Ford Motor Company line, but also on the dragstrip and road racing tracks, in GT-350 and Shelby Cobra versions, leading to numerous checkered flags.
In one of cinema’s most famous car-chases, Steve McQueen drove a 1968 Mustang GT fastback with a 390-cubic inch engine and four-speed transmission in the movie, “Bullitt” (1968).
The Mustang led the stampede in the glory days of Detroit iron, followed by the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and more, before the 1970s’ Arab Oil Embargo when gasoline was cheap and the world wasn’t choking on its own fossil fuels.
Iacocca saw a need for smaller, fuel-efficient cars back in 1968, which led to the Ford Pinto, which entered production in 1971.
Iacocca, after being ignobly sacked by Ford, went on to to other automotive industry successes, perhaps not as sexy as the Mustang, but as important, with several other put-together conglomerations at Chrysler, known as the minvan and K-Car. “If you can find a better car, buy it,” Iacocca said in a series of TV commercials.
Chrysler K-Cars, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, with front-wheel drive and traverse-mounted engines, released in 1981, were a response to the 1970s’ energy crisis. They sold well in the midst of the 1980-1982 recession.
Just as Iacocca sparked interest in “sporty cars” with the Mustang, he whetted American consumers’ appetites for the practical and efficient with the K-Car, ushering in a wave of Japanese auto manufacturers that took the concept and improved on it.
Though a case could be made for the Volkswagen Microbus, introduced in 1950, as the first minivan, Iacocca expanded on the idea, which became in 1983, the successful Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. Again, it was a combination of existing vehicles: a car and van merged. “Mustamg Sally” became “Soccer Mom.” Mustang owners now had children and dogs. Those bucket seats and token backseat were inadequate.
The Chrysler minivan, with its front-wheel drive, passenger and cargo accessibility, and sliding passenger-side door, sent the station wagon to the junkyards of history, led vehicle sales for 25 years, and ushered in the era of the SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) that dominates auto manufacturing in the first two decades of the 21st century.
It can be argued that Iacocca was also the father of the United States auto manufacturer bailout after federal loan guarantees of $1.5 billion for Chrysler in 1979 from the United States Congress. The loans were paid back seven years ahead of schedule.
Iacocca led Chrysler’s acquisition of AMC in 1987, mostly because he wanted the profitable Jeep division, especially the Jeep Grand Cherokee, released in 1992, the year Iacocca retired.
In 1999, Iacocca became head of EV Global Motors, which developd and marketed electric bikes with a top speed of 15 mph and a range of 20 miles between recharging at wall outlets.
He never took his eye off the wheel. Iacocca stayed as frisky and as cantankerous as the Mustang he lassoed into existence.
Here’s the link to a 1992 Chrysler commerical by Lee Iacocca: