Lee Iacocca had a comfortable relationship with reporters and editors.
The automotive press corps liked Iacocca. He was dynamic. And he was good copy, though sometimes after press conferences his public relations staffers would follow reporters out of the room to “update” some of the statistics Iacocca had exaggerated to make a point.
Iacocca had been a media megastar since April 1964 when he appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines after being anointed the father of the Ford Mustang.
But at times his stardom made it exasperating for reporters, editors and photographers to do their jobs.
Iacocca was always popular with dealers, especially after he moved from Ford’s Glass House headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., to Chrysler’s headquarters up the road in Highland Park, where he subsequently led the team that resuscitated Chrysler.
Unlike some other industry execs, Iacocca didn’t attend many National Automobile Dealers Association conventions, so when he did, it was an occasion. One year when the gathering was in Las Vegas, he came to Chrysler’s reception in a massive ballroom and immediately got the rock star treatment. Dealers waited in line to say hello and let their wives meet The-Great-Lee-Iacocca-Who-Saved-Chrysler.
I needed to talk to him for a story I was reporting. So I stood by patiently, notebook in hand, waiting to ask Iacocca a couple of questions.
His bodyguard, who saw the notebook but mistook me for a dealer, came over and told me, “Mr. Iacocca won’t be signing any autographs tonight.”
It was clear Lee Iacocca was a different kind of auto exec.
His ever-present cigar
It was always interesting to interview Iacocca. I’d prepare for an hour-long interview in his office by compiling a list of 20 questions, much as a football coach might script the first 20 plays of a game.
But he seemed to know exactly what reporters were looking for. Inevitably, I’d ask the first question, and Iacocca would take off and answer about half the questions on my list -- in a single, run-on sentence. The only way to get in a follow-up question was to wait until he took a puff on his ever-present cigar.
It was always good, quotable stuff. But back at the office it could be tough to transcribe the tape and sort out the quotes because you had to figure out where to insert the punctuation.
One time on the way to Highland Park to interview him, the photographer and I decided that we needed photos of Iacocca puffing on his cigar. So that’s what the photographer shot: lots of pictures of Iacocca and his cigar.
With about five minutes to go in the interview, Iacocca stopped in midsentence and said something like “By the way, boys, if you run pictures, don’t use any with the cigar because every time one shows up in the paper, I get lots of letters telling me how bad it is for kids to see me smoking.”
Iacocca was a savvy guy who understood the power of the media. He also understood the power of his personal image. He had to. His name became a household word, forever linked with saving Chrysler and restoring two national treasures: Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
His best-selling autobiography and the cocktail party buzz about him possibly running for president added to the aura.
One year, Chrysler held the press preview for its new models at The Woodlands conference resort near Houston. The dinner party was outdoors and had a Texas theme, so Chrysler’s public relations staffers insisted that everyone wear a cowboy hat and a red bandanna.
But that didn’t fit Iacocca’s image. So while all the other Chrysler execs walked around looking silly, Iacocca refused.