EDITOR’S NOTE: One month after the passing of the iconic Lee Iacocca, we look back at the impact he had on Canada. A version of this story ran in the July 2019 print edition of Automotive News Canada.
Lee Iacocca, the iconic executive who bet big on the minivan and steered Chrysler through its rescue and turnaround in the 1980s, leaves behind a legacy in Canada that few people in automotive history can match.
Under Iacocca, Chrysler launched its Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan minivans in 1983, effectively creating the segment and establishing the automaker as the leader. Minivans have been built at the company’s Windsor, Ont., assembly plant ever since.
Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said Iacocca’s decision to launch the minivan “to a great degree saved Chrysler.”
“Its allocation in Windsor and in St. Louis created the base for Chrysler today in Canada,” said Volpe. “There is no longer a plant in St. Louis, which closed in 2008, but that product was segment-defining. And it sustained generations, especially in the Windsor area but also in the wider Ontario supplier community that thinks minivan, works minivan, sweats minivan and feeds their family on it.”
Iacocca died on July 2 at his home in Bel Air, Calif., at the age of 94. In the outpouring of tributes and remembrances that
followed, the brash, straight-talking executive was hailed for shaping the images of two American automakers — he spearheaded the launch of the Ford Mustang — and defining what it meant to be a modern-day CEO.
Iacocca’s legacy in Canada extends well beyond Windsor and the minivans built there. In Brampton, Ont., Iacocca “made a real commitment to that plant,” which became part of Chrysler with the purchase of American Motors Corp., in August 1987, Volpe said. The plant underwent a major retooling with the installation of the LH platform that would launch such vehicles as the Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision in June 1992, and in later years, the rebirth of the Chrysler 300.
“I think that decision is as important to Brampton and the wider [Greater Toronto Area] as the minivan was to Windsor,” Volpe said.
After clashing with Henry Ford II and being fired from Ford Motor Co., Iacocca was brought on as COO of Chrysler in 1978 at a time when the automaker was on the brink of bankruptcy. Less than a year later, he became CEO and successfully lobbied U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Congress for a US $1.5-billion loan guarantee. In return, the automaker found about US $2 billion in cost reductions.
A federal rescue was unprecedented at the time, but it would serve as a template for Chrysler and General Motors during the 2008-09 economic collapse, when both automakers were bailed out by the federal governments of the United States and Canada, as well as the Ontario government. Volpe, who at the time was chief of staff for then-Economic Development Minister Sandra Pupatello, said Iacocca’s plan for saving Chrysler was influential on lawmakers.
“Having been part of the restructuring negotiations of 2009 and ’10, we studied very deeply ’79, ’80 and ’81,” he said. “Out of the ministry we led ... efforts to establish what Ontario’s position is, negotiate it and get the type of assurances both from Chrysler and General Motors.”
Chrysler soon turned around under Iacocca, posting a record profit of US $2.38 billion in 1984. While his first several years at Chrysler were marked by belt-tightening, Iacocca went on a spending spree in the latter half of the decade. Chrysler bought up many companies, such as Lamborghini and American Motors, including American Motors Corp.’s prized Jeep brand.
Jim McManes, owner of McManes Automotive Group in Calgary, bought Eastside Dodge in 1987, at a time when Chrysler was beginning to flourish on the success of the minivan. “He single-handedly rescued the company.
“The biggest thing he did for us as Chrysler dealers, was when he bought American Motors.
“A lot of people said he was crazy, but Jeep’s our strongest brand right now. If we didn’t have that, it would be tough.”
Volpe said Iacocca, who retired in 1992, “was as tall a giant as we ever produced in North America.
“This guy, you could probably memorialize, and his story should be taught to every auto executive.”
Doug Firby, Grace Macaluso and David Phillips contributed to this report.