Lee Iacocca's career at Ford Motor Co. is remembered largely for its dramatic end in 1978, when, as president, he was broomed abruptly by Henry Ford II.
But his 32 years at Ford left a major mark on the company.
His rise was impressive: He became general manager of Ford Division in 1960 at age 36; managed the development of the Mustang, which debuted in 1964; and was named president in 1970. Iacocca seemed destined to become chairman when Henry Ford II retired.
But the final act of the drama was rewritten by the man whose name was on the building.
Started in 1946
Iacocca, now 78, joined Ford in 1946 as an engineering trainee. After a nine-month orientation, he began a career in sales and marketing at the automaker's Chester, Pa., district sales office near Philadelphia. Although he had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering at Lehigh University and a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton University, he quickly discovered that his passion was sales and marketing.
"I was eager to be where the real action was - marketing or sales," Iacocca, who would not comment for this report, wrote in his 1984 autobiography. "I liked working with people more than machines."
Iacocca's first big splash came in 1956, as an assistant sales manager in the Philadelphia district, when he came up with "56 for '56," a marketing program to combat flat Ford sales.
Under "56 for '56," customers made a 20 percent down payment followed by three years of monthly payments of $56 for a 1956 Ford.
The concept and the catch phrase clicked with consumers. It was so successful that his Philadelphia sales district shot from last to first place in the nation in units sold.
"I became an overnight success," Iacocca wrote in his autobiography.
Hal Sperlich, who spent 20 years at Ford before being fired by Henry Ford II in 1976, says Iacocca is arguably the greatest automotive marketer.
"He was a marketing genius," says Sperlich, who held four vice president positions during the 1970s while Iacocca was Ford president. "Certainly, he could do a better ad campaign than anybody. He knew how to pitch a vehicle. He knew how to sell it, how to position it."
Iacocca's "56 for '56" idea won him a promotion to district manager of Washington, D.C. Just four years later, in November 1960, Iacocca was elected a vice president and was appointed general manager of Ford Division.
Iacocca was driven to climb the corporate ladder quickly, and he set a strict timetable. In The Unknown Iacocca, Peter Wyden wrote that Iacocca kept a chart of dates on his bedside table showing when he thought he was due to reach another rung on the corporate ladder. Wyden wrote that Iacocca felt diminished when his vice presidency came 18 days after his 36th birthday, not at 35, the deadline he had set.
As general manager of Ford Division, Iacocca envisioned a car that would seat four, weigh no more than 2,500 pounds, offer high performance and sell for less than $2,500.
Ford was enjoying success with its Falcon economy car, but Iacocca pictured something sportier. Ford would borrow components from the Falcon, including most of the drivetrain, to save production costs. Ford designers competed against each other to meet Iacocca's expectations.
Sperlich recalls that when Iacocca took over Ford Division, he was a very young man: "Kennedy was president. A young president. It was like youth was taking over. Iacocca brought a youthful energy and perspective in a world that was starting to go youthful. I was the car guy, the product-planning type, and he and I immediately hooked up because he wanted very badly to make his mark with some new product. So he turned to me, and that's how the Mustang happened."
The first Mustang was built on March 9, 1964, and was an immediate hit. (See story on Page 190.) The Mustang's success landed Iacocca and the car on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week.
In his autobiography, Iacocca wrote that he is generally seen as the father of the Mustang. But others say his role is overstated.
Ford design director Gene Bordinat was quoted in The Unknown Iacocca as saying that the Mustang was developed seven months before Iacocca saw it.
Climbing the ladder
The Mustang wasn't even a year old when its success earned Iacocca another promotion, this time to vice president of the Car and Truck Group in January 1965. He was in charge of planning, production and marketing for both Ford Division and Lincoln-Mercury.
On his way to the Ford presidency, Iacocca became executive vice president of Ford North American Automotive Operations in October 1967 and was elected president of Ford North American Automotive Operations in September 1969.
"I was the odds-on favorite to become the next president of the Ford Motor Co.," Iacocca wrote in his autobiography. "The Mustang had shown I was someone to watch. The Mark III made it clear I was no flash in the pan."
On Dec. 10, 1970, Iacocca ascended to his highest position at Ford. Henry Ford II named him president of the company. (See story on Page 210.)
Then he experienced a letdown. Iacocca recalled in his autobiography that when he made it to the Ford presidency, "I started to wonder why I had been in such a hurry to get there. I was only in my mid-forties, and I had no idea what I would do for an encore."
Disagreements between Iacocca and Henry Ford II surfaced quickly.
In The Unknown Iacocca, Wyden noted that Iacocca's discomfort with life with Henry Ford II escalated throughout the 1970s, first into anxiety and then into hatred.
"Friends of both men were telling each other that even a squad of psychiatrists might find it difficult to untangle the emotional circuits that tripped up these two egocentric lordships," Wyden wrote.
Iacocca finally would have his moment at the top - but it would be at cross-town rival Chrysler Corp, not at the company where he had spent 32 years.