Posts tagged ‘style’


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

03.07.2019


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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