He’s an American legend, a straight-shooting businessman who brought Chrysler back from the brink and in the process became a media celebrity, newsmaker, and a man many had urged to run for president.
The son of Italian immigrants, Lee Iacocca rose spectacularly through the ranks of Ford Motor Company to become its president, only to be toppled eight years later in a power play that should have shattered him. But Lee Iacocca didn’t get mad, he got even. He led a battle for Chrysler’s survival that made his name a symbol of integrity, know-how, and guts for millions of Americans.
In his classic hard-hitting style, he tells us how he changed the automobile industry in the 1960s by creating the phenomenal Mustang. He goes behind the scenes for a look at Henry Ford’s reign of intimidation and manipulation. He recounts the miraculous rebirth of Chrysler from near bankruptcy to repayment of its $1.2 billion government loan so early that Washington didn’t know how to cash the check.
About the Author
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Nicola Iacocca, my father, arrived in this country in 1902 at the age of twelve--poor, alone, and scared. He used to say the only thing he was sure of when he got here was that the world was round. And that was only because another Italian boy named Christopher Columbus had preceded him by 410 years, almost to the day.
As the boat sailed into New York Harbor, my father looked out and saw the Statue of Liberty, that great symbol of hope for millions of immigrants. On his second crossing, when he saw the statue again, he was a new American citizen--with only his mother, his young wife, and hope by his side. For Nicola and Antoinette, America was the land of freedom--the freedom to become anything you wanted to be, if you wanted it bad enough and were willing to work for it.
This was the single lesson my father gave to his family. I hope I have done as well with my own.When I was growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, our family was so close it sometimes felt as if we were one person with four parts.
My parents always made my sister, Delma, and me feel important and special. Nothing was too much work or too much trouble. My father might have been busy with a dozen other things, but he always had time for us. My mother went out of her way to cook the foods we loved--just to make us happy. To this day, whenever I come to visit, she still makes my two favorites--chicken soup with little veal meatballs, and ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese. Of all the world's great Neopolitan cooks, she has to be one of the best.
My father and I were very close. I loved pleasing him, and he was always terrifically proud of my accomplishments. If I won a spelling contest at school, he was on top of the world. Later in life whenever I got a promotion, I'd call my father right away and he'd rush out to tell all his friends. At Ford, each time I brought out a new car, he wanted to be the first to drive it. In 1970, when I was named president of the Ford Motor Company, I don't know which of us was more excited.
Like many native Italians, my parents were very open with their feelings and their love--not only at home, but also in public. Most of my friends would never hug their fathers. I guess they were afraid of not appearing strong and independent. But I hugged and kissed my dad at every opportunity--nothing could have felt more natural.
He was a restles and inventive man who was always trying new things. At one point, he bought a couple of fig trees and actually found a way to grow them in the harsh climate of Allentown. He was also the first person in town to buy a motorcycle--an old Harley Davidson, which he rode through the dirt streets of our small city. Unfortunately, my father and his motorcycle didn't get along too well. He fell off it so often that he finally got rid of it. As a result, he never again trusted any vehicle with less than four wheels.
Because of that damn motorcycle, I wasn't allowed to have a bicycle when I was growing up. Whenever I wanted to ride a bike, I had to borrow one from a friend. On the other hand, my father let me drive a car as soon as I turned sixteen. This made me the only kid in Allentown who went straight from a tricycle to a Ford.
My father loved cars. In fact, he owned one of the first Model T's. He was one of the few people in Allentown who knew how to drive, and he was always tinkering with cars and thinking about how to improve them. Like every driver in those days, he used to get a lot of flat tires. For years he was obsessed with finding a way to drive a few extra miles with a flat. To this day, whenever there's a new development in tire technology, I always think of my father.
He was in love with America, and he pursued the American dream with all his might. When World War I broke out, he volunteered for the Army--partly out of patriotism, and partly, he admitted to me later, to have a little more control over his destiny. He had worked hard to get to America and to become naturalized, and he was terrified at the prospect of being sent back to Europe to fight in Italy or France. Luckily for him, he was stationed at Camp Crane, an army training center just a couple of miles from his home. Because he could drive, he was assigned to train ambulance drivers.Nicola Iacocca had come to America from San Marco, about twenty-five miles northeast of Naples in the Italian province of Campania. Like so many immigrants, he was full of ambition and hope. In America he lived briefly in Garrett, Pennsylvania, with his stepbrother. There my father went to work in a coal mine, but he hated it so much that he quit after one day. He liked to say it was the only day in his life that he ever worked for anybody else.
He soon moved east to Allentown, where he had another brother. By 1921, he had saved up enough money doing odd jobs, mostly as an apprentice shoemaker, that he could return to San Marco to bring over his widowed mother. As it turned out, he ended up bringing over my mother, too. During his stay in Italy this thirty-one-year-old bachelor fell in love with the seventeen-year-old daughter of a shoemaker. Within a few weeks they were married.
Over the years a number of journalists have reported (or repeated) that my parents went to Lido Beach in Venice for their honeymoon and that I was named Lido to commemorate that happy week. It's a wonderful story, except for one problem: it's not true. My father did take a trip to Lido Beach, but it was before the wedding, not after. And since he was with my mother's brother at the time, I doubt that his vacation was very romantic.
My parents' voyage to American wasn't easy. My mother came down with typhoid fever and spent the entire trip in the ship's infirmary. By the time they reached Ellis Island, she had lost all her hair. According to the laws, she should have been sent back to Italy. But my father was an aggressive, fast-talking operator who had already learned how to manage in the New World. Somehow he was able to convince the immigration officials that his new bride was merely seasick.
I was born three years later, on October 15, 1924. By this time, my father had opened a hot-dog restaurant called the Orpheum Wiener House. It was the perfect business for somebody without much cash. All he really needed to get started were a grill, a bun warmer, and a few stools.
My father always drilled two things into me: never get into a capital-intensive business, because the bankers will end up owning you. (I should have paid more attention to this particular piece of advice!) And when times are tough, be in the food business, because no matter how bad things get, people still have to eat. The Orpheum Wiener House stayed afloat all through the Great Depression.
Later, he brought my uncles Theodore and Marco into the business. To this day, Theodore's sons, Julius and Albert Iacocca, are still making hot dogs in Allentown. The company is called Yocco's, which is more or less how the Pennsylvania Dutch used to pronounce our name.
I came pretty close to going into the food business myself. At one point in 1952, I seriously considered leaving Ford to go into food franchising. Ford dealerships operated as independent franchises, and it occurred to me that anyone who could franchise a food operation would get rich in a hurry. My plan was to have ten fast-food outlets with one central buying location. This was long before McDonald's was even a gleam in Ray Kroc's eye, and I sometimes wonder if I missed my true calling in life. Who knows? Maybe today I'd be worth half a billion dollars, with a sign out front proclaiming: Over 10 billion served.
A few years later, I did open my own place, a little sandwich shop in Allentown called The Four Chefs. It served Philadelphia cheese steaks. (That's thinly-sliced steak with melted cheese on an Italian roll.) My father set it up, and I put in the money. It did very well--too well, in fact, because what I really needed was a tax shelter. We made $125,000 the first year, which raised my tax bracket to the point where I had to get rid of it. The Four Chefs was my first exposure to bracket creep and the progressive nature of our tax laws.
Actually I was in the food business long before I got involved with cars. When I was ten, one of the country's first supermarkets opened in Allentown. After school and on weekends, my little pals and I would line up at the door with our red wagons, like a row of taxicabs outside a hotel. As the shoppers came out, we would offer to take home their bags for a small tip. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense--I was in the transportation end of the food business.
As a teenager, I had a weekend job in a fruit market run by a Greek named Jimmy Kritis. I used to get up before dawn to get to the wholesale market and bring back the produce. He paid me $2.00 a day--plus all the fruit and vegetables I could lug home after a sixteen-hour workday.
By this time, my father had other enterprises besides the Orpheum Wiener House. Early on, he bought into a national company called U-Drive-It, one of the very first car rental agencies. Eventually he built up a fleet of about thirty cars, mostly Fords. My father was also good friends with one Charley Charles, whose son, Edward Charles, worked for a Ford dealership. Later Eddie bought a dealership of his own, where he introduced me to the fascinating world of the retail car business. By the time I was fifteen, Eddie had convinced me to go into the automobile business. From that day forward, all my energies were directed to doing just that.
My father is probably responsible for my instinct for marketing. He owned a couple of movie houses; one of his theaters, the Franklin, is still in use today. Old-timers in Allentown have told me my father was such a great promoter that the kids who came down to the Saturday matinees used to get more excited about his special offers than about the movies. People still talk about the day he announced that the ten kids with the dirtiest faces would be admitted free.
I doubt there are any kids at the Franklin today. It's now called the Jenette, and instead of Tom Mix and Charlie Chaplin, it shows porno flicks.Economically, our family had its ups and downs. Like many Americans, we did well during the 1920s. My father started making lots of money in real estate, in addition to his other businesses. For a few years we were actually wealthy. But then came the Depression.
No one who's lived through it can ever forget. My father lost all his money, and we almost lost our house. I remember asking my sister, who was a couple of years older, whether we'd have to move out and how we'd find somewhere else to live. I was only six or seven at the time, but the anxiety I felt about the future is still vivid in my mind. Bad times are indelible--they stay with you forever.
During those difficult years, my mother was very resourceful. She was a real immigrant mother, the backbone of the family. A nickel soupbone went a long way in our house, and we always had enough to eat. I remember that she used to buy squabs--three birds for a quarter--and kill the birds herself because she didn't trust the butcher to guarantee their freshness. As the Depression grew worse, she helped out in my father's restaurant. At one point she went to work in a silk mill, sewing shirts. Whatever it took to keep going, she did it gladly. Today she's still a beautiful woman--who looks younger than I do.
Like so many families in those days, our strong belief in God sustained us. We seemed to pray an awful lot. I had to go to Mass every Sunday and take Holy Communion every week or two. It took me a number of years to fully understand why I had to make a good confession to a priest before I went to Holy Communion, but in my teens I began to appreciate the importance of this most misunderstood rite of the Catholic Church. I not only had to think out my transgressions against my friends; I had to speak them aloud. In later years, I found myself completely refreshed after confession. I even began to attend weekend retreats, where the Jesuits, in face-to-face examinations of conscience, made me come to grips with how I was conducting my life.
The necessity of weighing right from wrong on a regular basis turned out to be the best therapy I ever had.Despite some of the bad times, we had plenty of fun. There was no TV in those days, so people depended more on each other. On Sunday, after church, we'd always have a house full of family and friends, laughing, eating pasta, and drinking red wine. We also read a lot of books back then, and of course every Sunday night we'd gather around the old Philco radio to listen to our favorite shows, like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Inner Sanctum.
For my father, though, the Depression was the shock of his life. He couldn't get over it. After years of struggle he had finally made a pile of money. And then, almost overnight, it was all gone. When I was little, he used to tell me that I had to go to school to learn what the word "depression" meant. He himself had only finished the fourth grade. "If somebody had taught me what a depression was," he used to say, "I wouldn't have mortgaged one business on the next."
This was in 1931. I was only seven, but I knew even then that something serious had gone wrong. Later in college I would learn all about business cycles, and at Ford and Chrysler I would learn how to weather them. But our family's experience was an early inkling of things to come.
My parents were great picture-takers, and our family photo album told me a lot. From birth until I was six, I'm dressed in satin shoes and embroidered coats. My baby pictures show a silver rattle in my hand. Suddenly, around 1930, my clothes start to look a little ragged. My sister and I weren't getting new clothes anymore. I didn't really understand, and it wasn't the sort of thing my father could explain. How can you say to a kid: "I lost my shirt, son, but I don't know why"?
The Depression turned me into a materialist. Years later, when I graduated from college, my attitude was: "Don't bother me with philosophy. I want to make ten thousand a year by the time I'm twenty-five, and then I want to be a millionaire." I wasn't interested in a snob degree; I was after the bucks.
Even now, as a member of the working rich, I put most of my money away in very conservative investments. It's not that I'm afraid of being poor, but somewhere in the back of my mind there's still the awareness that lightning can strike again, and my family won't have enough to eat.
No matter how I'm doing financially, the Depression has never disappeared from my consciousness. To this day, I hate waste. When neckties went from narrow to wide, I kept all my old ones until the style went back to narrow. Throwing out food of scraping half a steak into the disposal still drives me crazy. I've managed to convey some of that awareness to my daughters, and I notice that they don't spend money unless they get a good deal--my goodness, they do go to a lot of sales!
More than once during the Depression, my father's checks were returned to him with that deathless line: Insufficient Funds. This would always throw him for a loop, because he felt a good credit rating was vital to the integrity of an individual or a business. He constantly preached his gospel of fiscal responsibility to Delma and me, urging us never to spend more money than we took in. He believed credit was insidious. Nobody in our family was allowed to have a credit card or to charge anything--ever!
In this respect, my father was a little ahead of his time. He foresaw that buying things on time and getting into hock would undermine people's sense of responsibility about money. He predicted that easy credit would eventually permeate and sabotage our entire society and that consumers would get into troubly by treating their little plastic cards as if they were money in the bank.
"If you borrow anything," he used to tell me, "even twenty cents from a kid at school, be sure to write it down so you won't forget to pay it back." I often wonder how he would have reacted if he'd lived long enough to see me go into hock in 1981 to keep the Chrysler Corporation in business. This one was for a lot more than twenty cents: the total came to $1.2 billion. Although I recalled my father's advice, I had a funny feeling that this was one loan I'd remember even without writing it down.
They say that people vote with their pocketbooks, and certainly my father's political views shifted along with his income. When we were poor, we were Democrats. The Democrats, as everybody knew, were the party of the common man. They believed that if you were willing to work hard and not be a deadbeat, you should be able to feed your family and educate your kids.
But when times were good--before the Depression and then again when it was finally over--we were Republicans. After all, we had worked hard for our money and we deserved to hold on to it.
As an adult, I underwent a similar political transformation. As long as I was at Ford and all was right with the world, I was a Republican. But when I took over at Chrysler and several hundred thousand people were suddenly threatened with losing their jobs, the Democrats were the ones who were pragmatic enough to do what was necessary. If the Chrysler crisis had come up during a Republican administration, the company would have gone down the tubes before you could say Herbert Hoover.Whenever times were tough in our family, it was my father who kept our spirits up. No matter what happened, he was always there for us. He was a philosopher, full of little sayings and homilies about the ways of the world. His favorite theme was that life has its ups and downs and that each person has to come to terms with his own share of misery. "You've got to accept a little sorrow in life," he'd tell me when I was upset about a bad grade in school or some other disappointment. "You'll never really know what happiness is unless you have something to compare it to."
At the same time, he hated to see any of us unhappy and would always try to cheer us up. Whenever I was worried about anything, he'd say: "Tell me, Lido, what were you so upset about last month? Or last year? See--you don't even remember! So maybe whatever you're so worried about today isn't really all that bad. Forget it, and move on to tomorrow."
During hard times, he was always the optimist. "Just wait," he'd tell me whenever things looked bleak, "the sun's gonna come out. It always does." Many years later, when I was trying to save Chrysler from bankruptcy, I missed my father's comforting words. I'd say, "Hey Pop, where's the sun, where's the sun!" He never let any of us surrender to despair, and I confess there was more than one moment in 1981 when I felt ready to throw in the towel. I kept my sanity in those days by recalling his favorite saying: "It looks bad right now, but remember, this too shall pass."
He was really a bird about performing up to your potential--no matter what you did. If we went out to a restaurant and the waitress was rude, he'd call her over at the end of the meal and give her his standard little speech: "I'm going to give you a real tip," he'd say. "Why are you so unhappy in this job? Is anyone forcing you to be a waitress? When you act surly, you're telling everybody you don't like what you're doing. We're out for a nice time and you're wrecking it. If you really want to be a waitress, then you should work at being the best damn waitress in the world. Otherwise, find yourself another line of work."
In his own restaurants, he would immediately fire any employee who was rude to a customer. He'd say: "You can't work here, no matter how good you are, because you're scaring the customers away." He got right down to the heart of the matter, and I guess I'm the same way. I still think all the talent in the world doesn't excuse deliberate rudeness.
My father always reminded me that I should enjoy life, and he practiced what he preached. No matter how hard he worked, he always made sure to leave enough room to have a good time. He loved bowling and poker as well as good food, drink, and especially good friends. He always made friends with my colleagues at work. During my career at Ford, I think he knew more people there than I did.
In 1971, two years before my father died, I threw a big party for my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. I had a cousin who worked in the U.S. Mint, and I commissioned him to sculpt a gold medal depicting my parents on one side and the little church in Italy where they had been married on the other. At the party, each guest was given a bronze version of the medal.
Later that year my wife and I took my parents back to Italy to visit their hometown and to see all their old friends and family. By this time we knew my father had leukemia. He was getting blood transfusions every two weeks and was steadily losing weight. When at one point we lost track of him for several hours, we were afraid he had lost consciousness or collapsed. We finally caught up with him in a tiny shop in Amalfi, where he was excitedly buying up ceramic souvenirs for all his friends back home.
Right up to the end, in 1973, he was still trying to enjoy life. He wasn't dancing as much or eating as much, but he sure was very brave and determined to live. Still, the last couple of years were rough on him, and all of us, too. It was difficult to see him so vulnerable--much less accept it.Now when I look back on my father, I only remember a man of great vigor and boundless energy. Once I was in Palm Springs for a Ford dealer meeting and I invited my father to come out for a brief vacation. When the meeting was over, a couple of us went out to play golf. Although my father had never been on a golf course in his life, we asked him to come along.
As soon as he hit the ball, he began to chase after it--seventy years old and running all the way. I had to keep reminding him: "Pop, slow down. Golf is a game of walking!"
But that was my father for you. He always preached: "Why walk when you can run?"