Lido Anthony Iacocca, generally known as Lee Iacocca, was born to Italian immigrants Nicola and Antonietta in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on October 15, 1924. Iacocca suffered a serious bout of rheumatic fever as a child, and as a result he was found medically unfit for military service in World War II. During the war, he attended Lehigh University as an undergraduate. He then received a master’s degree in engineering from Princeton University.
Iacocca’s engineering degree landed him a job at the Ford Motor Company in 1946. He soon left engineering for sales, where he excelled, then worked in product development. Iacocca also moved up the ranks at Ford, becoming a vice president and general manager of the Ford division by 1960. One of Iacocca’s accomplishments was helping to bring the iconic Mustang—an affordable, stylish sports car—to the market in 1964.
In 1970, Iacocca became Ford’s president. However, the straight-talking Iacocca clashed with Henry Ford II, scion of the Ford family and chairman of the auto company. The tense relationship between the two led to Ford firing Iacocca in 1978.
A few months after leaving Ford, Iacocca was hired to head the Chrysler Corporation, which was then in such financial distress that it was in danger of bankruptcy. Under Iacocca’s leadership, Chrysler received $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees; at the time, it was the largest amount of government assistance that a private company had ever received. This gave Iacocca the breathing room he needed to revamp and streamline operations.
During Iacocca’s tenure, the popular minivan was added to the Chrysler vehicle lineup. Iacocca also served as a spokesman in television ads, promising anyone who test drove a Chrysler $50 if they ended up buying a similar car from a competitor. The company edged into profitability in 1981 and repaid its government loans in 1983, years ahead of schedule. In 1984, Chrysler made more than $2.4 billion, a record for the corporation.
Iacocca’s success in turning Chrysler around made him a national celebrity. President Ronald Reagan asked him to help coordinate fundraising efforts for the restoration of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Two books written by Iacocca, his 1984 autobiography Iacocca and Talking Straight (1988), became best-sellers. He even made an appearance on the popular 1980s TV show Miami Vice.
Iacocca retired from Chrysler in 1992. He was then able to devote more time to the Iacocca Family Foundation, a charity that supports diabetes research.