Legendary Auto Executive Lee Iacocca Dies At Age 94

Lee Iacocca, the auto executive who introduced the iconic Mustang at Ford (NYSE:F) in the 1960s and pulled Chrysler (NYSE:FCAU) out of bankruptcy in the 1980s, has died at age 94.

During a 32-year career in Detroit, Iacocca launched some of the best-selling and most beloved vehicles of all-time, including the minivan, the Chrysler K-car and the Ford Escort. He also battled Japanese automakers in the 1970s and 1980s, accusing them of unfair trade practices.

The son of Italian immigrants, Iacocca reached a level of celebrity matched by few auto moguls. During the peak of his popularity in the 80s, he was famous for his TV ads and catchy tagline: "If you can find a better car, buy it!" At the height of his fame in the mid-1980s, Iacocca appeared on an episode of the TV show Miami Vice.

After retiring, he wrote two best-selling business books and even mused about running for president in the 1990s. But he will be best remembered as the blunt-talking, cigar-chomping Chrysler chief who helped engineer a great corporate turnaround.

In 1979, Chrysler was buried under $5 billion U.S. of debt. It had a bloated manufacturing system, a reputation for making gas-guzzlers and militant unions. When the banks turned him down for loans, Iacocca successfully lobbied the federal government in Washington, D.C. to approve $1.5 billion in loan guarantees that kept the automaker going.

Iacocca wrung wage concessions from the union, closed some 20 plants, laid off thousands of workers and introduced a new lineup of affordable cars, notably the K-car. In TV commercials, he admitted Chrysler's mistakes but insisted the company had changed.

The strategy worked. The K-cars — Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant — were basic but affordable, fuel-efficient and had seating for six people. In 1981, they captured 20% of the market for compact cars. In 1983, Chrysler paid back its government loans, with interest. In 1984, Iacocca introduced the minivan and created a new market that helped the company return to profitability.