Remembering Mustang creator Lee Iacocca: Why was he such a legendary car company boss?


America’s most important automotive personality at the moment is Elon Musk, but before the South African revolutionised electric vehicles with Tesla, there was only candidate as automotive MPV – Lee Iacocca. 

The legendary former Ford chairman passed this week and leaves a deeply impressive chronology of achievements as his legacy.

For many younger car enthusiasts, his name will not trigger any particular reference, but Iacocca defined much of America’s auto industry with focussed decisions and a brilliantly intuitive marketing mind. 

Why is he being celebrated as the most influential American automotive personality since WW2? Allow us to list some of his achievements in support of that claim. 

What you do think of Lee Iacocca's legacy? Email us
(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 20, 2004

                                                               Image: AFP

Father of the affordable American sports car

There is no question that Ford’s Mustang is the most successful American sports car of all time. It has sold more than ten million units since its launch in 1964 and is now in its sixth-generation – very few other vehicles can claim such an uninterrupted continuation of production and evolution. 

After joining Ford as an engineer in 1946, Iacocca swiftly progressed up the company’s hierarchy and was in a position to influence and guide the original Mustang from concept to production.

Its success over the last five and a half decades is a testament that Iacocca had judged the formula for an affordable, and inspirational, American sports car to perfection. 

The man who made Americans believe in FWD and four-cylinders

Iacocca eventually left Ford ignominiously in the late 1970s, after irreconcilable tensions with the Ford family. He joined rival Chrysler, which was struggling with a product portfolio badly out of trend with customer expectations. 

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 20, 2004

                                                             Image: AFP

American brands rejected the idea of smaller-engined cars, which were front-wheel drive, but after a decade of surging fuel prices, Iacocca knew there were customers who would buy these.

With his Chrysler K-Car models, he effectively used Japanese sedan design and configuration principles, with an American badge. The Chrysler K-Car platform vehicles were hugely successful and rejuvenated the company throughout the 1980s. 

Establishing the MPV

In another visionary interpretation of what customers would need, but did not have, Iacocca built the first useable multi-purpose vehicle in 1983. 

Although MPVs have mostly been surpassed by SUVs and crossovers in the last decade, Chrysler made generous profits with its minivans for a very long time. These vehicles eventually evolved into the Voyager model – which sold in South Africa. 

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 20, 2004

                                                          Image: AFP

By the early 1990s, most American urban families who did not require an enormous tow-rating or gravel road driving ability were optioning to buy Chrysler’s Voyager as their vehicle of choice. 

Understanding the importance of SUVs

After championing the MPV trend, Iacocca saw the SUV craze a decade before it happened. He realised that Chrysler desperately required an ability to build SUVs. Instead of a costly R&D project, he simply bought AMC, which owned the Jeep brand in 1987.

Today, Jeep is a robust and healthy brand, without which Chrysler would potentially not have been an attractive target for its joint-venture with Fiat, which saved the company after bankruptcy in 2009. 

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