Posts tagged ‘Lee Iacocca’

Reflections about Lee Iacocca—unfortunately, not all of it is positive


The car Lee Iacocca will be remembered for, the 1965 Ford Mustang on the right.

Before I found out about Lee Iacocca’s passing, on the same day I Tweeted about one of the cars he was behind when he was president of Ford: the 1975 US Granada. Basically, Iacocca understood that Americans wanted style. That really was at the core of his thinking. It’s also why the Granada—really a warmed-over, restyled Falcon that had its roots in the late 1950s—was always compared to Mercedes-Benz models. It was a mass-market American pastiche of the German car, with the same size. It had a grille and hood ornament. But it was frightfully slow, underpowered, and heavy, one of the most inefficient cars that Americans could buy.
   It’s the antithesis of the Mustang, which Iacocca arguably spearheaded, though in his autobiography, he noted that so many people claimed to be the father of the Mustang that he didn’t want to be seen with the mother (or words to that effect—the book’s next to my partner who’s already gone to sleep as I write).
   That was a stylish car, too. It was a Falcon-based coupé. But it could be specified with the right power to match its looks, and it was priced and marketed brilliantly. Ford hit a home run, and Iacocca’s reputation as a car industry guru was sealed.
   He was also the man who came up with the idea for the Lincoln Continental Mark III. No, not the 1950s one (which technically wasn’t a Lincoln), the one that came out in the 1960s (Ford didn’t really follow a sequential numbering system—remember it went Mark, Mark II, III, IV, V, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII). The idea: stick a Rolls-Royce grille on a Thunderbird. It beat the Cadillac Eldorado, and Iacocca finished the ’60s on a high.
   I felt that history hadn’t been kind to the Mustang II, which also came out under Iacocca’s watch. The fact was it was a sales’ hit, at a time when Detroit was reeling from the 1973 fuel crisis. No V8s initially, which in the 21st century looks like a misstep; in 1974 it would have looked smart. Growing up, we didn’t think the II was as bad as history remembers.
   But the US range was, in some ways, lazy. GM was downsizing but Iacocca noted that people were still buying big cars. To give the impression of downsizing, Ford just renamed the Torino the LTD II. Look, it’s a smaller LTD! Not really: here was yet another car on old tech with another pastiche luxury-car grille.
   When Iacocca was fired from Ford, he went to Chrysler, and pulled off his greatest sales’ job yet: to secure loan guarantees from the Carter administration and turn the company around with a range of modern, front-wheel-drive cars. The K-car, and its derivatives, were a demonstration of great platform-sharing. He noted in his autobiography that Chrysler even worked out a way to shave a tiny amount from the length to fit more Ks on a railroad car. And Iacocca’s penchant for style re-emerged: not long after the original Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries, there were fancied up Chrysler LeBarons, and a woody wagon, then a convertible, the first factory US one since the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado. Most importantly, Chrysler got the T-115 minivans on sale before Renault got its Espace out, though after Nissan launched the first MPV, the smaller Prairie. Nevertheless, the minivan was an efficient family vehicle, and changed the face of motoring. Iacocca was right when he believed people want style, because it’s the SUV that has succeeded the MPV and minivan. SUVs are hardly efficient in most circumstances, but here we are in 2019, with minivan sales projected to fall, though Chrysler has managed to stay the market leader in its own country.
   Chrysler paid back its loans years early, and it was under Iacocca that the company acquired American Motors Corp., getting the Jeep brand (the real prize) in the process. And it’s thanks to François Castaing and others who came across from AMC that Chrysler wound up with its LH sedans, the “cab-forward” models that proved to be one of the company’s hits in the 1990s.
   While having saved Chrysler, it was burdened with acquisitions, and in Iacocca’s final full year as Chairman Lee, the company posted a $795 million loss, with the recession partly to blame. The press joked that LH stood for Last Hope.
   It’s an incredible record, with some amazing hits. They do outnumber the duds. But what really mars it is an incident of sexual harassment I learned some years ago that never appears in the official biographies. Now, I don’t have a sworn affidavit, so you can treat this as hearsay. But until I heard that from a good friend—the woman who was harassed—Iacocca was a personal hero of mine. I bought the autobiography. I could forgive the financial disgrace Chrysler was in for 1991—one year out of nearly a dozen isn’t a bad run, even though the writing was on the wall when so much money was spent on acquisitions, hurting working capital.
   I know, his daughters and their kids won’t appreciate what I just said. That it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, especially when they can’t answer back. You could say that that was the era he was from, in an industry steeped in male privilege—his boss at Ford, Henry the second, was carrying on an affair behind his wife’s back. You might say that one incident that I know of shouldn’t mar this incredible business record. He has left his mark on history. It’s just when it happens to one of your own friends that it’s closer to home, and it’s hard for me to offer the effortless praise I would normally have done if not for that knowledge.

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Fun for car anoraks—till you get to the factual errors


I bought Steven Parissien’s The Life of the Automobile: a New History of the Motor Car, which started off as a good history. I’m 300-odd pages in now and the mistakes are really worrying. There’s also a shocking lack of editing (one part repeated, albeit in different language, and spelling and grammatical mistakes) in the parts I’ve got to now; it’s as though the editor got tired after the first 10 chapters and stopped caring. But the biggest errors are factual.
   I am astonished to learn, for instance, that Harley Earl was responsible for the concept of the Ford Thunderbird (p. 255), that Triumph TR7 production was transferred to Speke in 1982 (p. 293, though Parissien later contradicts himself with the correct fact), and that John Z. de Lorean was a protégé of Lee Iacocca (p. 309). I really have no idea how, but as far as I know, de Lorean was never at Ford, and he had a Chrysler stint long before Iacocca got there. I also never knew that ‘In 1968 the Toyota Corolla became the first Japanese car to be manufactured in the US’ (p. 314; that was the year it went on sale there, and from memory the Corolla didn’t get built there till the NUMMI deal in the 1980s) or that the Opel Ascona C was also sold as the Opel Vectra (p. 337). The Italian Job was released in 1969, not 1967 (p. 224).
   I am frustrated with this book—and now it makes me wonder if the stuff earlier on, which I know less about, was accurate.
   I can understand an editor not grasping the subject as well as the author but there is less excuse in professional publishing for the other problems. Maybe there are few professional proofreaders left, now that spellchecks have been around for a generation or more. I was prepared to recommend this book even a week ago and tolerated the spelling and grammar, but these factual mistakes are worse than what can be found in Wikipedia, and I often label parts of that site as fiction.

PS. (September 17): How much worse can it get, as I continued through? A lot.
   On p. 320, we get an admission that Parissien was wrong on p. 314: the Honda Accord was the first Japanese-branded car to be made Stateside. At least an earlier error was corrected. But they begin again on p. 321: Parissien claims the V30 Toyota Camry dominated the US mid-size car market (it was never sold outside Japan; he’s thinking of the XV10, or the Japanese-market Scepter, which was badged Camry). Correcting his error on p. 322, the Camry was not specifically targeted at the US; it was Toyota’s attempt to create an efficient car from the ground up, and it was not done in 1980, but 1982 (the 1980 Celica Camry was not sold outside Japan). The Paykan deal was cemented long before George Turnbull got to Iran (p. 324), though local content rose in the 1970s for it to be truly Iranian-made and Parissien might mean the shifting of the engine tooling there, if I’m being generous. There is only one world, not multiple ones (also p. 324), unless Parissien knows something about parallel universes that the rest of us don’t. Surely Chrysler managed to launch its T-115 minivan (Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager) before Renault launched the Espace (p. 330), and the Triumph Acclaim was never called the ‘Ronda’ (p. 334), though its successor was.
   On p. 360, in a single paragraph, Parissien makes several errors. The MG 6 launched as a five-door car, not his claimed four. There is no such thing as the Roewe 150, in China or elsewhere. The MG 3 has five doors and is not a three-door counterpart to the 6. The five-door MG 6 launched not in 2011, but in 2010, and the Magnette name was only used in the UK for the four-door. The founder of Chrysler was Walter Chrysler, not Walther (p. 364). The Lancia Delta only became a Chrysler in the UK and Éire, as far as I know (p. 365), and remained a Lancia in most countries. The Belgian designer is Dirk van Braeckel, not van Braeckl (p. 368); Mercedes-Benz never bought an 18·53 per cent stake in Volkswagen (p. 369); and Citroën’s BX was not the last car in that range to have ‘pneumatic suspension’ (p. 372). The Malibu was not a Saturn, but a Chevrolet (p. 375), and Buick was never sold off (p. 376). The Ford Mondeo did not replace the Telstar in all Asian markets (p. 377), and it shared far more than the ‘windscreen, front doors and rear’ with the Contour and Mystique (in fact, the rear was not shared, though there were common engines, platform, and plenty more). It’s not entirely certain that the US market judged the Contour to be too small (p. 378), but there was a lack of marketing (which would have made an even better story than the one Parissien writes about). Ford subsequently filled the Contour’s niche with the smaller Focus Stateside. The CD338 Fusion was never sold in Australia (also p. 378). Ford never resurrected the Taunus in Germany under Alan Mulally (p. 381)—this invention is incredible. VAZ did follow up the 2101 with something similar after it ended production in 1983 (not 1984, p. 382), viz. the 2105, which was about as similar as one could get to the 2101.
   On p. 384, Parissien claims Acura’s Legend sales were ‘disappointing’, after saying they were ‘beginning to sell rather well’ 50 pp. before. The Hindustan Ambassador was not based on the 1954 Morris Oxford (p. 389): that car was actually the Hindusthan Landmaster. The Ambassador was based on the 1957 Morris Oxford III, and was in production from 1959, not 1958. The Red Flag (or Hongqi) marque was not reborn on an Audi A6 (p. 391), but the marque had been used on a version of the Audi 100 C3 from 1988, and no Hongqi bore an Audi–Chrysler–Hongqi brand name. The Chinese company is Dongfeng, not Dongfen (p. 391), and Parissien’s claim that the Everus was sold in the west (p. 392) is news to me, as I am sure it is to its own management. I’ll stop there for now.

P.PS. (September 18): Some bedtime reading, or should I say error-finding, last night. On p. 394, Toyota and Aston Martin did not jointly develop the Cygnet: Toyota developed the IQ in 2008, and Aston Martin converted that car to become its Cygnet, and ‘hot hatch’ is a very optimistic description for a city car. Toyota did not launch the Cygnet in 2008 as Parissien claims, nor did it have a say in what customers were expected to purchase the Cygnet: it was aimed specifically at existing Aston Martin owners, not ‘Toyota and Aston expected initial demand to be limited to those who already owned an Aston Martin sports car.’ It was certainly no ‘eccentric experiment’ of Toyota, but of Aston Martin. Volvo never made a model called the A40 (p. 395), and I bet Nissan is surprised to find that the original Qashqai was designed ‘at the firm’s Milan design centre’ (p. 397) when it was designed in London. Maserati never launched a Jeep-based SUV called the Kubang (p. 397), but it did have a concept of that name, and the Levante appeared in 2016 after the book was published. There is no such car as the Porsche Cajun, and if Parissien refers to the smaller Porsche crossover, then that is called the Macan, and it has five doors, not the claimed three (p. 397). The Volkswagen New Beetle was not on a Polo platform (p. 399), but a Golf one, as was its successor (though a newer Golf); and Ford would dispute that its Mustang is a sedan (p. 401). If J Mays’s first name is J (as footnoted), then there is no need to refer to him as ‘J. Mays’ (p. 401). The Ford Ka’s name is not derived from StreetKa (p. 402): that was a model spun off from the Ka in 2002; and some would regard the Mk II model was being superior to the Fiat 500 on which it is based (especially as Fiat adopted some of the changes for its own model). I have yet to see a Smart with a Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star or marque anywhere, unlike Parissien who seems to think they are badged Mercedes (p. 403), and a Smart SUV does not exist unless Parissien is reporting again from his parallel universe (p. 403). There is also no such car as the Kia Exclusive (p. 410).

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Retro moment: the first American Ford Granada


Ford Granada advertisement
Above: The US Ford Granada in a contemporary advertisement, as posted at

Not the European car, but the American one of the same name: the Ford Granada was marketed as a US alternative to a Mercedes-Benz. Not as overstyled as, say, the Ford Maverick, this was an extremely heavy car, and Ford’s marketing emphasized how it was as good as the Mercedes-Benz, at a similar size.
   There’s not much by way of the Ford identity in this car’s design: it comes across as a pastiche of the Merc and something that Lee Iacocca would dream up. It was, after all, the 1970s—probably the last decade occidental car companies tried things without regard to how models might look in their range.
   The heaviness may be due to the amount of standard equipment. Iacocca was quite happy to lavish his era of Fords with gear. There’s little mention of his involvement with the Granada, not even in his autobiography, but it seems in line with his approach with the Mustang II.
   While there’s still some “Fordness” to the overall look, e.g. in the waistline, I don’t remember contemporary Fords having this type of grille, and the later Granada (and related Mercury Monarch) facelifts continued to give this line a different style to the others. (On a side note, there was also an ultra-plush Granada called the Lincoln Versailles, which was not that successful; the equivalent in recent times, of a modern Ford sold under all three brands and looking about the same, was the CD338 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln MKZ [née Zephyr].)
   I remember contemporary reports that swallowed Ford’s claims and published diagrams on how similar the two cars were (PR info from Dearborn?), and I even have a Kiwi friend in Whitby who loves his Yank Granada. Fascinating looking back at these cars, 35 years on—and how branding plays a far greater role in automotive design today than it did back then.

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