Few firings in the automotive world have caused as big a ripple as the ousting of Lee Iacocca by Henry Ford II on July 13, 1978.
The buzz went on for years. Was it really because the tycoon Henry II, a pillar of Detroit's high society, just didn't like the outspoken, flamboyant and cigar-chomping Iacocca, the son of Italian immigrants?
That's what Iacocca says in his 1984 autobiography in which he paints Henry Ford, chairman of the family company, as "an old pro at spending money."
"He just sat in his ivory tower and said, 'My God, we're making money!' He was there every day to throw his weight around, but he never knew what made the place tick," Iacocca wrote in Iacocca: An Autobiography.
Or was Iacocca fired as president of Ford Motor Co. because Henry Ford II had had enough of the whispering campaigns, scheming and bold moves his second-in-command made to enthrone himself as the chairman's successor?
2nd firing in 9 years
Iacocca was the second president fired by Henry Ford II in nine years. Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen got the ax in 1969.
But Knudsen was an interloper from General Motors. Iacocca was one of the good old boys, a 32-year Ford veteran who had worked his way to the top.
Only three people were in the room during that historic event - Henry Ford; his brother, William Clay Ford; and Iacocca. Only Iaccoca has gone on the record - first in an interview with Automotive News for the July 17, 1978, issue in which Publisher Keith Crain broke the story.
Iacocca told Automotive News that he was canned because Ford didn't "want strong guys around," and that the chairman told him "it was just one of those things."
The most famous Ford quote from the firing comes from Iacocca's autobiography. Iacocca claims Henry Ford II said: "Well, sometimes, you just don't like somebody."
Iacocca was president for 7½ years, holding the post longer than any other non-Ford family member. He had a glamorous and rapid rise to the top. Iacocca was a vice president in his 30s when he headed Ford Division and became the golden boy when the Mustang was launched in the 1960s.
Iacocca was named vice president of the company's Car and Truck Group in 1965 and executive vice president of Ford North American Automotive Operations in October 1967.
Then came a disaster. In February 1968, Henry Ford II lured Knudsen away from General Motors to become president of Ford Motor Co. A few months earlier, Knudsen had been passed over for the presidency of GM.
But Iacocca is as tough as he is smart. Nineteen months later, Knudsen was gone, sent on his way with another of Henry II's bon mots: "Things just didn't work out."
But the presidency continued to elude Iacocca. Ford Motor Co. had no president from Knudsen's dismissal in September 1969 until Dec. 10, 1970, when Iacocca was named to the job.
His next goal - chairman and CEO - looked like a slam-dunk. After all, he was seven years younger than Henry Ford II.
Iacocca had spent years building a power base at Ford. He appointed executives he knew would support him and his programs.
He even developed what authors Peter Collier and David Horowitz called in their book The Fords: An American Epic "an audacious plan not just to survive at the company but to prevail" that entailed lobbying outside directors to keep his job.
Slipping from power
But he started to slip from power in 1977, when Henry Ford II named Philip Caldwell vice chairman and a member of a newly formed triumvirate - the office of the chief executive. Iacocca and Henry Ford II were the other members. Iacocca slipped farther when William Clay Ford was appointed as the fourth member of the office of the chief executive.
And then came the day in 1978 when Henry Ford showed Iacocca that the man whose name was on the building was the boss.
Caldwell succeeded Henry Ford II as CEO in 1979 and as chairman in 1980. By that time Iacocca was at Chrysler Corp., telling the world, "If you can find a better car (than a Chrysler product), buy it."
Looking back, Iacocca's downfall at Ford Motor Co. was inevitable.
Two strong, capable men wanted to control the company, but the youngster never had a chance against the grizzled veteran. The Iacocca-Ford clash was like a collision between a golf cart and a Mack truck, and the result was just as predictable.