EDITOR'S NOTE: This commentary by Automotive News Editor-in-Chief Keith Crain appeared in the July 8, 2019 edition of Automotive News.
The auto industry seems to have more than its share of icons. It just said goodbye to another one with the death of Lee Iacocca at age 94.
You could love him or hate him, but you could never ignore him. He was an unbelievable figure in this business. Everyone had a strong opinion of him.
Not many auto executives can claim to have run two huge companies successfully for more than two decades, but Iacocca did just that.
I can't remember exactly when I first met Lee, but he was larger than life and had a huge impact on everyone he met.
I certainly will never forget our well-reported story when Henry Ford II fired Iacocca.
I was on the phone on July 13, 1978, with Iacocca's wife, Mary, who told me he was on his way home. She corrected herself when she saw him walking in the door and handed the phone to him.
"What happened?" I asked. Lee responded: "He fired me." And I said: "Say it isn't so."
In those days, Automotive News was shipped to the printer on Thursdays but didn't publish until Monday.
This was a Thursday. So we put out a press release saying Automotive News would report in Monday's issue that Lee Iacocca had been fired. Ford wasn't yet saying anything about the move, and I had the scoop of my career.
It did not take long for Lee to start his second career, and he was soon hired by Chrysler Corp. as president and COO.
He had no idea how tough it would be at Chrysler. But in spite of all the challenges, he turned the company around and fixed it. It would take more than $1 billion in federal loan guarantees, adding the K-car to its lineup and buying American Motors, the ugly duckling whose Jeep brand has become a great success.
When Iacocca was fired by Ford, a number of other executives fell under the blade as well. Hal Sperlich avoided the firing because he had left before all the bloodletting. He had some impact on the Mustang and then went on to help create not only the K-car but the minivan, another incredibly important vehicle.
When Iacocca retired, he replaced himself with Bob Eaton, a controversial decision even today.
You could write a book about Lee. In fact, he wrote three, and all were bestsellers.
Iacocca was someone special. I knew him for four or five decades and I was fascinated the entire time. There have been a lot of interesting folks along the way but no one quite like Lee Iacocca.
He was one of a kind. I have great memories of Lee and, like so many other people, I shall miss him.