Happy 92nd birthday Lee Iacocca, creator of auto cults

Lee Iacocca pictured with the Iacocca Silver 45th Anniversary Edition Mustang in 2009. — AFP pic
Lee Iacocca pictured with the Iacocca Silver 45th Anniversary Edition Mustang in 2009. — AFP pic

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NEW YORK, Oct 15 — Lee Iacocca may have retired from the industry in 1992 but as he gets ready to celebrate his 92nd birthday, the influence and legacy of the auto industry's first swashbuckling CEO is still clear to see in areas ranging from fuel efficiency to affordable performance and practicality.

According to Jay Leno, what makes Lee Iacocca, who celebrates his 92nd birthday today, so special is that he was the very first US auto industry head who understood “product.” More importantly, thanks to a unique combination of engineering skills and PT Barnum levels of marketing savvy, he not only knew how to build and how to sell a car, he had a sixth sense when it came to understanding what customers want.

For proof, look no further than his greatest automotive hits — the Ford Mustang, the Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Omni, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“He was the kind of guy that when he told you to buy something, you went out and bought it,” said Leno.

A first-generation American born in Pennsylvania in 1924 to Italian immigrants, Iacocca will be remembered as much for being a tangible example of the American dream — the son of a hotdog seller to the president of the Ford Motor Company — as he will for the impact he had on modern business and personal mobility.

Iacocca was the first corporate bigwig to literally become the “face” of his company, appearing in advertising campaigns, on television and gracing the cover of Time. When he published his autobiography in 1984, it became an instant international best-seller. His passion and approachability made him the first swashbuckling CEO, blazing a trail that the likes of Steve Jobs would follow in terms of image.

From Mustangs to minivans

During his 46 years in the industry, Iacocca used his considerable charisma to sell everything from the Ford Mustang to Jeeps and even Lamborghinis and Maseratis. He also helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy and popularise the idea of fuel-efficient compact cars.

Looking back on his career, Iacocca has said of the 1964 Ford Mustang, the first car aimed squarely at teenagers as much as their parents: “This was my first 'home run,' which became a 'cult' vehicle and would be impossible to duplicate.” It redefined the idea of an affordable sportscar, became an icon and has been immortalised in song. But Iacocca believes his greatest car was the minivan.

First floated as an idea while both were at Ford, Iacocca and designer Hal Sperlich finally brought the idea to life at Chrysler in the form of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1983.

“The minivan was a phenomenal success, and a precursor to the SUV,” he said. How successful? It was the biggest selling passenger car in the US for 25 years in a row. — AFP-Relaxnews

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