By his 67th birthday on Oct. 15, 1991, Chairman Lee Iacocca had pretty much done it all in his 13 years at Chrysler:
Saved the company from bankruptcy. Made money selling a dozen flavors of K cars. Repaid government-guaranteed loans early. Turned a rejected Ford project -- the minivan -- into a breakthrough product and profit machine. Sold Chrysler's faltering European operation to Peugeot. Bought American Motors and its jewel of a brand, Jeep.
Once broke, Chrysler was vibrant and poised to become highly profitable as a series of innovative vehicles reached production.
Now, though, it was time to find a new chairman. For all its gratitude and deference to Iacocca, Chrysler's board was signaling it wouldn't again waive its mandatory retirement age policy.
Iacocca clearly relished the power he held at Chrysler and the spotlight it brought. Reluctantly, he began the search for his successor.
Several names circulated as potential candidates: Chrysler CFO Jerry York, entrepreneur Roger Penske, and -- before he left for Wall Street -- Chrysler Vice Chairman Steve Miller. But by early 1992, the most logical candidate was Chrysler President Bob Lutz. Camelot years With Iacocca's support, the Swiss-born Lutz had created product development teams of engineers, designers and marketers - experts drawn from a variety of corporate operations. The teams minimized bureaucratic infighting, saved money and brought products to market quickly.
As the first of these models -- the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and the LH trio of mid-sized sedans -- arrived in 1992, so did profits. In 1992, Chrysler earned $723 million. Starting in 1993, operating profits soared into the billions.
Iacocca gave Lutz broad authority to run the auto business. Platform team members who worked for Lutz call the early 1990s "the Camelot years," said one engineer.
"Iacocca let Bob run wild," he said. "We had a ball."
But all was not well in Camelot. Simply put, Iacocca and Lutz detested each other. The two huge egos had a hard time sharing the executive suite.
In their 1995 book, Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White wrote that Lutz called Iacocca a "doddering old fart."
Iacocca considered Lutz, but just couldn't follow through. Instead, after a courtesy call to General Motors Chairman Bob Stempel, he approached Bob Eaton, an engineer who headed GM's European operations. Pivotal choice
After a brief courtship, Eaton became Chrysler's vice chairman on April 26, 1992. He took over as chairman and CEO on Jan. 1, 1993. Iacocca's choice was crucial, since Lutz and Eaton had far different visions of Chrysler's future.
Lutz, who stayed at Chrysler until 1998, thought the company should remain independent. Eaton, after fighting off a 1995 buyout bid, believed Chrysler was too small to survive on its own.
Just before Lutz retired from Chrysler, he had dinner in Ann Arbor, Mich., with Peter Brown, then the editor of Automotive News and now editorial director. Lutz reflected on his relationship with Iacocca.
"I think I was unnecessarily provocative and at times disrespectful," Lutz said, "and probably guilty of a cardinal sin, which is not to show solidarity with the officially appointed leader."