Riccardo’s sudden departure cleared the way for Iacocca to become chairman and CEO of Chrysler, a few months earlier than planned, after Iacocca had served as president and COO for less than a year.
“He blew himself out of the water to bring Chrysler back to life,” Iacocca wrote of Riccardo in his 1984 biography, Iacocca. “And that is the test of a real hero.”
John J. Riccardo was born in Little Falls, N.Y., on July 2, 1924. He was the son of an Italian immigrant who built bicycles for a living.
He served as an Army truck driver on the Burma Road during World War II and graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics. He met his wife, Thelma, in a freshman Spanish class at the University of Michigan. They were married for 66 years.
Riccardo, a certified public accountant and protege of longtime Chrysler chairman and CEO Lynn Townsend, joined Chrysler in 1959 as a finance executive on the international operations staff. He became general manager of the company’s export-import division in 1960.
He later was promoted to vice president of Chrysler Canada, assistant general manager of the Dodge car and truck division and the Chrysler-Plymouth division, and vice president of marketing for Chrysler Corp.
Riccardo was named group vice president in charge of Chrysler’s domestic automotive operations in 1967 and later group vice president of the company's U.S. and Canadian automotive business.
His rapid rise up Chrysler’s executive ladder, championed by Townsend, earned him the nickname The Rocket.