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When it comes to automotive industry heroes, there may not be another icon that was as influential as the great Lee Iacocca. Iacocca was one of the first celebrities in the American automotive sales and design industries. Of course, other icons in the automotive industry had done incredible things before, during, and after Lee Iacocca’s lifetime. Still, Lee had a deep understanding of the average American car owner.

In the American automotive industry, especially on the executive level, it isn’t uncommon for a disconnect between what a company is producing and pushing in advertising and what the American public needs. Iacocca became a household name due to his effort to appeal to what Americans need from a vehicle in design and marketing. Here is everything you need to know about Lee Iacocca’s historic career and how he saved Chrysler from certain doom.

Lee Iacocca’s rise to fame with Ford

Lido Iacocca was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1924 to two immigrant parents. As Lido was growing up, he was a fantastic student, and he eventually graduated from Princeton University in 1946 with a master’s degree in Mechanical engineering. Immediately following his graduation from Princeton, Iacocca found employment with Ford as an engineer. He worked his way to the sales and marketing divisions, which is when he changed his name to Lee. It was here that Lee would have his first breakthrough as the assistant sales manager for Ford in the Philadelphia area.

According to Jalopnik, Iacocca unveiled his “$56 for ‘56” program. This program was a financing plan that allowed consumers to purchase a 1956 Ford for 20% down and $56 a month for three years. This opened the doors for Americans everywhere to buy their first new car, especially those who couldn’t afford a $2000+ brand-new vehicle.

Lee Iacocca’s success continued as he became Vice President and GM of the Ford division. Lee saw a need for an affordable, fun, sports car for the growing youth in America. Using his charismatic personality, he championed the Mustang project, which used the platform of the Ford Falcon compact, and turned it into a sporty coupe. Due to the Mustang’s overwhelming success, Lee Iacocca became president of the Ford Motor Company. Unfortunately, Henry Ford II and Iacocca didn’t see eye to eye, and years later, Lee Iacocca was fired.

Iacocca saved Chrysler with genius cost-cutting engineering

In 1978, Chrysler was a struggling company about to go under. On its last leg, Lee Iacocca was brought in to try and save the flailing Detroit giant. Iacocca was able to turn Chrysler around by eliminating the poor image Chrysler had built throughout the 70s. Old styling, anemic drivetrains, and stone-age engineering were a thing of the past for Chrysler. With Iacocca at the helm, Chrysler was able to produce multiple vehicles using just one platform.

Lee Iacocca’s one size fits all platform, the K platform, or the K-car, hit dealer lots in the early 80s and changed the future of Chrysler in America. With the K-car platform, just about any vehicle could be made. The Chrysler Lebaron convertible, the Plymouth Reliant, the Dodge Aries, and yes, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans. Using this one platform to build so many cars led Chrysler sales to skyrocket, and because hardly any unique chassis parts had to be manufactured, the K-cars were incredibly cheap to produce. With cutting-edge front-wheel drive, excellent fuel economy, and Lee Iacocca’s advertising charisma, Chrysler was saved.

Chrysler after Iacocca

Lee Iacocca ended up retiring from Chrysler in 1992 and unfortunately died in 2019. Since then, Chrysler had its fair share of ups and downs. Of course, after his retirement, Chrysler continued Iacoca’s original legacy of creating fun, economical, compact cars with the Dodge and Plymouth Neon and Chrysler PT Cruiser. However, Chrysler has remained mostly stagnant since Lee’s retirement. Fiat bought Chrysler in 2014, and in early 2021, Chrysler became a brand under the Stellantis umbrella of automotive brands.

While some exciting concept vehicles are on the horizon in the Chrysler lineup, Chrysler’s only remaining vehicles are the Chrysler 300 large car and the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. Hopefully, another charismatic executive like Lee Iacocca can step in and make this struggling automotive brand a Detroit giant once again.

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