Lee Iacocca tried to mount a coup to oust Henry Ford II from the Ford Motor Co., a daring move that prompted Henry Ford to fire Iacocca in 1978, according to a controversial new book by a former top Ford official.
The book directly contradicts Iacocca's own, highly publicized version of the events leading up to his celebrated firing from Ford. Iacocca's dramatic ouster from family-controlled Ford Motor played a prominent role in his 1984 autobiography, one of the best-selling books of the 1980s.
In his book, Iacocca, who took over Chrysler after his firing at Ford, bitterly described himself as the victim of a vindictive Henry Ford, who had been undercutting his power for years. He said Ford finally fired him in July, 1978, because of long-simmering personality conflicts--even though Iacocca had played a leading role in developing some of Ford's most successful products, including the Mustang.
And Thursday, Iacocca denied, through a spokesman, that he sought to persuade the Ford board to oust Henry Ford. "The account is absolutely untrue," the Iacocca spokesman said.
Henry Ford II, who died in 1987, never sought to explain publicly his side of the feud with Iacocca. But in a new book, "Henry: The Man who was Henry Ford II," Walter Hayes, the former vice chairman of Ford of Europe and one of Henry Ford's closest confidantes, presents Ford's version of the story.
Hayes writes that Iacocca, then president of Ford, tried to convince company directors that Henry Ford, then the chairman of Ford Motor, was senile. While Henry was in China, Iacocca met with at least two directors and said he should be given greater power to run the company because Ford was no longer able to run things.
"The king was away in Peking," Hayes writes. "What better time for a palace revolution?"
Hayes says Iacocca told directors that "Henry was senile and not up to the job, and indicated that there were others in the company who shared his opinion."
In an interview Thursday, one former Ford director who was intimately involved in the Ford-Iacocca feud confirmed Hayes' version of the story. Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, director emeritus, former chairman and chief executive of Times Mirror Co., which owns The Times, said he is convinced that Iacocca was trying to make a "preemptive strike" against Henry Ford by going directly to the board to oust Henry.
"I think he (Iacocca) was desperate," Murphy said. "He was making a preemptive strike, because he knew he would be fired, and he wanted to have the board fire Henry.
"Lee thought he could convince the board that Henry didn't know what he was doing, and so he mounted this coup."
Murphy said he heard about Iacocca's approach to two other directors and passed on the information to Arjay Miller, a former Ford president and a close friend of Henry. Miller told Ford about the Iacocca power play when Ford returned from China. The Hayes' book says, and Murphy agrees, that Iacocca's coup attempt then forced Ford's hand.
At a board meeting July 12, Ford demanded a vote of confidence from the board, Murphy recalled. "He was adamant. He said, 'When a man does what Iacocca has done when my back is turned, I have no alternative but to seek a vote of confidence. It's me or Iacocca.' "
In his autobiography, Iacocca briefly mentions his meetings with two outside directors just before his firing, but describes the purpose of the visits quite differently. Iacocca writes in his book that "there was nothing secret about these meetings. It was their idea."
Iacocca says the board suggested that he meet with some outside directors to try to find a solution to his feud with Henry.