In this file photo taken on April 20, 2004 Lee Iacocca, founding chairman of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., speaks during the 2004 Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards at the Ellis Island Museum in New York City. Picture: AFP/PAUL HAWTHORNE
In this file photo taken on April 20, 2004 Lee Iacocca, founding chairman of The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., speaks during the 2004 Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards at the Ellis Island Museum in New York City. Picture: AFP/PAUL HAWTHORNE

Washington — Motor industry legend Lee Iacocca, who is credited with creating the iconic Ford Mustang and saving Chrysler from bankruptcy, died on Tuesday at the age of 94.

Iacocca died at his home in Bel-Air, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, from complications of Parkinson’s disease, his family told local media.

Chrysler said in a statement that the company was “saddened” by news of Iacocca’s death.

“He played a historic role in steering Chrysler through crisis and making it a competitive force,” it said.

“Lee gave us a mindset that still drives us today, one that is characterised by hard work, dedication and grit. His legacy is the resilience and unshakeable faith in the future that live on” in the company’s employees, it said.

Iacocca began his career in 1946 at the Ford Motor Company, first as an engineer and then in sales.  It was his talent in marketing that helped realise his potential.

Iacocca’s first sales campaign in the mid-1950s was so successful that it attracted the attention of company executives and brought him to the Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. He had reaped in massive sales over his career, particularly with the Ford Mustang that he designed in 1957.

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However he was accused of plotting against chairman Henry Ford II in a quest to reach the top company position. In a 1992 interview, when Iacocca was asked about the seemingly Machiavellian scheme, he snapped back with characteristic sharpness: “Machiavelli my ass!”

Ford fired him in 1978, so Iacocca moved to the floundering Chrysler Corporation.

In 1979, the US government bailed Chrysler out of a potential bankruptcy with $1.5bn in secured loans. Iacocca took the reins once more and implemented a painful restructuring process. He had twisted US Congress’s arm for the loan, and he successfully brought Chrysler back from the brink, then paid off the loan ahead of schedule.

Under his leadership, Chrysler invented the minivan and later the suburban utility vehicle (SUV). His famous line in Chrysler ads — “If you find a better car, buy it!” he would say, pointing at the viewer — turned him into a legend.

Iacocca’s fierce anti-Japanese views — he viewed their commercial practices as detrimental to the US —– at the time earned him support from Democrats and labour unions.

But by the late 1980s Chrysler took a downturn, and thousands of employees were laid off in order to save the company.

He left Chrysler at the start of the 1990s, and later launched an ultimately unsuccessful hostile takeover bid of the company with billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.

Iacocca said that the Great Depression of the 1930s had a lasting effect on his outlook, especially after his family — Italian immigrants — lost everything. “The Depression turned me into a materialist. I was after the bucks,” he said.

When Chrysler was in trouble, he accepted a $1 salary. But when the company recovered, he took home as much as $20m a year. “No matter what you have,” he once said, “it’s never enough.”

AFP