A Final Bow : Iacocca Exits Center Stage at Chrysler This Week, Marking the End of an Era


Even critics of Lee A. Iacocca concede that he’s put on quite a show, a career of dramatic twists and surprises performed in various costumes on several stages--often at the same time.

He’s been car salesman, CEO, engineer, television star, industry statesman, best-selling author, rich man, friend of the working stiff. Republican, Democrat, genius, flamethrower, stand-up comedian. He makes his way across the contradictory worlds of business, labor, politics, family and pop culture.

An unapologetic egotist, he embodies cliches of the old Detroit--a car man, gasoline in his veins--and, as many believe he is, the American hero: Gimme results, don’t look back, let the chips fall, take it or leave it.


“Direct as the thrust of a piston,” a news magazine swooned over Iacocca back in 1964, the year his public persona was created with simultaneous cover stories in Time and Newsweek. It was a publicity coup that Iacocca said helped sell an extra 100,000 of the Ford Mustangs he fathered that year.

Now Iacocca, 68, is two days from official retirement as chairman of Chrysler Corp., which for 14 years has served as his center stage. And he leaves with Chrysler on another upswing, the latest turn in the zigzag career of a man about whom there is little new to say.

He rode the Mustang to the presidency of Ford Motor Co. at age 46. Persuaded President Nixon that air bags were a lousy idea. Was fired by Henry Ford II in a Hollywood-style showdown in 1978. Jumped to failing Chrysler and jawboned Congress into bailing it out. Engineered a spectacular recovery. Rebuffed a presidential draft. Led the attack on Japan’s “predatory” trade strategies. Strong-armed corporate America into refurbishing the Statue of Liberty. Mismanaged Chrysler into another crisis. Seized leadership in air bags. Pulled Chrysler out of a nose dive again.

Today, the interviews--the reporters, anchors and talk-show hosts who have lined up for one more dose of his free-form chatter--are winding down.

And he seems at once mellow and testy, sensitive to how he’ll go down in the history books. He is wary of “revisionists” who would rewrite his triumphs and failures or label him a Japan hate-monger.

He is proud of the shape he’s left Chrysler in. And, for a man routinely described as “larger than life,” he is oddly pleased that he knows all the political and media big shots.

“Think of the power brokers--they’re all good friends of mine,” he says, slumped on a couch in his unprepossessing office at Chrysler’s humble inner-city headquarters, punctuating his remarks with a trademark cigar that is more a prop than a smoke.

“Kay Graham (chairman of the Washington Post Co., publisher of Newsweek)--who is more powerful than her other than the President of the United States? I had good relationships with some Presidents. Congress . . . Gephardt, Bentsen, Rostenkowski, Tip O'Neill. Today’s his 80th birthday, I got to call him by the way. I know ‘em all. Dole I got to be very friendly with. . . . Teddy Kennedy . . . Foley . . . Danforth.

“I raised a lot of money for these guys. . . . The Italian caucus, I mean they would kiss my ring, you know. And they were big. And the black caucus, they thought I walked on water. Because they thought I did something for the black community in Detroit.”

Iacocca is ready to do battle to make sure everyone has his story right, as set out in his 1984 autobiography, “Iacocca.”

Did he really create the ’64 Mustang all by himself? What was his role in that smash success? “All of it. There wouldn’t have been a Mustang. . . . I was a zealot about it,” he says, pronouncing the word “zee-lot.”

Did he conspire, Machiavelli-style, to oust Ford Motor Co. President Semon (Bunkie) Knudsen in 1970 and make room for himself? “Machiavelli, my ass. I mean, I don’t know why you’re here today because everything you’re asking is negative. Knudsen came in for 19 months, and Henry (Ford II) and he didn’t get along, and Henry said ‘I own this place’ and fired him. I don’t know what the hell I had to do with that. You’re talking folklore.”

Wasn’t the minivan already in the works when he arrived at Chrysler in 1978? “I built the first minivan when I was at Ford . . . 1972 or 1973. . . . And when I got canned I took all the research with me. I feel good about the minivan starting a new class of vehicle. Now there are revisionists in the world who want to say the minivan was started by the (Volkswagen) Vanagon. Vanagon was a truck with an engine in the back.”

Did he, after saving Chrysler in the early 1980s, practically kill it in the richer years with ill-timed diversification moves and the purchase of American Motors? “I took a beating: ‘How dumb can you get buying that losing company?’ When I got here it was crisis time, and I guess I don’t fold under heat and I was a good crisis manager. Then people wrote that when things go well, you’re a lousy manager. Well, that’s OK. I don’t care about that. Times do change and you adapt or you die. . . . We survived and we survived happily.”

Indeed, it is now increasingly accepted that “on my watch,” as Iacocca says, Chrysler has emerged from this latest and most worrisome worldwide auto slump as one of the hot auto makers.

American Motors’ Jeep name was what Iacocca had wanted, and this year he launched the best-selling Jeep Grand Cherokee. Meanwhile, Iacocca and his staff have been reinventing Chrysler’s car-making processes for the next century and leapfrogging competitors.

And through it all has been the press.

“I took all the (heat) from you guys,” he says of reporters. “You’ve got to give me credit.”

In addition to various going-away extravaganzas, Iacocca turned up recently on ABC’s “Nightline” and CNN’s “Larry King Live” and has been doing lunch with Time, Newsweek and Forbes in New York.

“I just had a 2 1/2-hour going-away thing with all the Time guys who went through Detroit. They did the first cover on me. My dossier there is about two feet high. One of them says, ‘When you go through it over all those years, it looks like we were your house organ. We were good to you.’ And I said, ‘That’s ‘cause I was good to you.’ ”

By the time Iacocca had gotten fired from Ford, rescued Chrysler and refurbished the Statue of Liberty, Time had put him on its cover four times.

He uses the power of words, pictures and imagery. All those TV commercials, this guy with the “expressive face,” as Time founder Henry Luce told him when they met 40 years ago, hawking Chrysler’s cars and trucks in America’s living rooms.

It was the commercials that made people believe that Iacocca wanted to be President, although, unlike his pal, Ross Perot, Iacocca seemed to understand that his Genghis Khan style wasn’t suited to government by the people.

But if he had run, he would have done a better job of image-making than Michael Dukakis. Even though it was the Democrats who bailed Chrysler out in 1980 and who talked his language on jobs and trade, Iacocca says he voted for George Bush in 1988.

“I just couldn’t muster up enough to vote for Mike Dukakis, I just couldn’t do it. . . . That was our tank,” he laughs, setting up an Iacoccian crack about an image from the campaign of the diminutive, helmeted Dukakis peering out from a massive Chrysler-built M-1 tank.

“That’s the one he was in,” he says, pointing to a photo of the M-1 on his office wall. “His little head was poppin’ right out of the top of that and it cost him 2 million votes.”

Iacocca refuses to say who he voted for last month, though he and Perot share many views. He likes to say he was a Democrat after his father went broke in the Depression, then grew rich at Ford and became a Republican, and then went broke at Chrysler and became a Democrat again.

Now, he says, “I’m an independent,” though of course he’s been getting richer every year.

Some of Iacocca’s recent paychecks have gotten him the kind of press he doesn’t like, though he was taking home more than $500,000 a year as far back as 1970. At Chrysler alone, by one count, Iacocca has collected $98 million in 14 years, most of it in stock, elevating him to the same league as baseball’s Barry Bonds.

He will be entitled to another $20 million or so in the next year after he retires. He’ll also collect pocket money of five or six figures for remaining on Chrysler’s board. And he boasts that he’s signed on with the same speaker’s bureau as Norman Schwarzkopf, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for the richest fees in the speaking business.

Retirement will be relative. With his third wife, former Los Angeles restaurant owner Darrien Earle, he will operate from homes in Palm Springs; Aspen, Colo.; Detroit, and Italy.

Iacocca might spend some time rescuing other companies, such as TWA, and dabbling in his family-run wine and olive oil business, Villa Nicola, in the Tuscany region of Italy. He will work with the manufacturing institute named after him at Lehigh University. And he will serve on the board of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, D.C., a think tank that thinks the way he does.

“I expect to spend some time mouthing off,” Iacocca says. “Work in the East and play in the West.”