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In a career of more than 30 years, Iacocca helped launch some of Detroit’s best-selling and most significant vehicles, including the minivan, the Chrysler K-cars, the Ford Mustang and Escort. He also spoke out against what he considered unfair trade practices by Japanese automakers.
Iacocca died in Bel Air, California. He was 94.
During the peak of his popularity in the ’80s, he was famous for his TV ads and catchy tagline: “If you can find a better car, buy it!” He wrote two best-selling books and was courted as a presidential candidate.
In 1979, Chrysler was floundering in $5 billion of debt. It had a bloated manufacturing system that was turning out gas-guzzlers that the public didn’t want.
When the banks turned him down, Iacocca and the United Auto Workers union helped persuade the government to approve $1.5 billion in loan guarantees that kept the No. 3 domestic automaker afloat.
Iacocca wrung wage concessions from the union, closed or consolidated 20 plants, laid off thousands of workers and introduced new cars. In TV commercials, he admitted Chrysler’s mistakes but insisted the company had changed.
Iacocca introduced the minivan and created a new market.
By 1960, at age 36, Iacocca was vice president and general manager of the Ford division.
Iacocca’s first burst of fame came with the debut of the Mustang in 1964. He had convinced his superiors that Ford needed the affordable, stylish coupe to take advantage of the growing youth market.
In 1970, Iacocca was named Ford president and immediately undertook a restructuring to cut costs as the company struggled with foreign competition and rising gas prices.
“Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry and our country," said Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor upon Iacocca's passing. "Lee played a central role in the creation of Mustang. On a personal note, I will always appreciate how encouraging he was to me at the beginning of my career. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.”
Iacocca was fired from Ford in 1978, but he got the last laugh. He was strongly courted by Chrysler, and he helped cement its turnaround.
A January 1987 Gallup Poll of potential Democratic presidential candidates for 1988 showed Iacocca was preferred by 14 percent, second only to Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. He continually said no to “draft Iacocca” talk.
Also during that time, he headed the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, presiding over the renovation of the statue, completed in 1986, and the reopening of nearby Ellis Island as a museum of immigration in 1990.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.