Remembering Lee Iacocca, a giant of the car business

Word came to the automotive world this week that Lido Anthony Iacocca, one of the industry’s most visible and influential executives of the postwar era, died at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94 and had been suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. family members said. I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Iacocca in 2012, a wide-ranging conversation in which he talked about a variety of topics, cars and otherwise.

Many accolades were directed at Iacocca in the hours and days that followed his passing. He was indisputably a master salesman; the path that led to the presidency of Ford began when he was a regional sales manager and created an innovative “56 for ’56” campaign that gained him immediate notice at the head offices in Dearborn. If you’re reading this page, you likely know that Iacocca’s influence gave the Mustang project the final push it needed to reach volume production. Iacocca also championed small cars, starting with the Ford Pinto, but his successes didn’t keep him from being spectacularly fired by Henry Ford II in 1978. Iacocca then decamped to tottering Chrysler, where he overhauled a cost-cutting production mentality and got Congress to approve loan guarantees that kept the carmaker afloat, and were repaid during his tenure. Yes, the K-cars, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, helped save Chrysler as an independent automaker – for a while, at least. The Chrysler minivans he approved, and the first compact Jeep (under Iacocca, Chrysler bought the remains of American Motors to get its hands on the Jeep brand) Cherokee, created whole new categories of vehicles that the public embraced. Before an ill-fated alliance with Las Vegas investor Kirk Kerkorian, in which the billionaire attempted a hostile takeover of Chrysler that led to its acquisition by Daimler-Benz, Iacocca’s name was seriously bandied about as a potential presidential candidate. I talked about all these matters with Iacocca. We also talked about the product that put his family on the entrepreneurial map of the United States.

Hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs.

Iacocca was fiercely proud of his Italian heritage, and told me how his forebears had first settled in this country in and around Allentown, Pennsylvania. In 1922, one of them began grilling and serving hot dogs with a secret spicy sauce. That company, Yocco’s, is still in business today and operates several excellent restaurants in the Lehigh Valley region. The chain takes its name from the correct pronunciation of Iacocca’s surname. In Italian, it’s pronounced YA-coke-a. He told me that after graduating from Lehigh University and Princeton, he landed in Dearborn where the WASPish executive force couldn’t figure out how to say his name. He decided that to end the confusion, he’d have his family name verbalized the same way it was spelled, which was EYE-uh-coke-a. The bosses who couldn’t understand a word of Italian were mollified. Iacocca told me that he’d have Yocco’s ship packages of ready-to-heat hot dogs to him once he retired to California, which were a staple of his cookout gatherings. I have a hard time imagining that the auto industry will ever produce someone as determined, foresighted and personally successful as Iacocca again. The photograph comes from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles courtesy of my pal Kurt Ernst at Hemmings Motor News.

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