Try A-Coke-Ah (Part One)

Lee Iacocca – The Ford Years

Image: Ford Motor Company

Searching for a horse’s mouth account of that pioneering purveyor of horseless carriages, a recent read was the well known autobiography of the irrepressible, late and lamented Lido Anthony (Lee) Iacocca. (1924-2019) With the internet nowadays a deep-mine of information, such a move maybe described as unnecessary, but to this author at least, that misses the point.

For those of you who seek the inner nuances concerning his fathering of the Mustang, therein lies a smattering – just eighteen pages given over to that mother of all car launches, but since other aspects of his career overwhelmed such matters, we ought not be too disappointed.

Born of a strong willed Italian immigrant family, Lido had it instilled by his father from an early age to work hard to get what he wanted. Early into the book he openly claims to not just chasing money but “the big bucks.” Exempted from the war draft due to a nasty spell of rheumatic fever in his teens, he ploughed his new-found energies into his college studies. He admits to the luck he faced as his classmates were suddenly bound for European or Pacific theatres of war, leaving Iacocca to pretty much 1:1 tutoring. He attended but failed to understand a lecture given by Einstein as cars, girls and beers diverted his attention.

Iacocca joined Ford through bloody minded insistence. The company had a strict one pupil chosen from fifty colleges on their list – Lido was made the 51st placement, and finally in his beloved industrial heartland. He swiftly tired of the engineering side of matters and sought a sales position, still within Ford but away from the bosom of Dearborn. With grit, determination and several years of plugging away, Charlie Beecham took Iacocca under his wing, mentoring the young and still pretty green but endlessly enthusiastic Italian American out of his shell and into the limelight. 

Early in the book, he freely admits to being subjected to racial prejudice throughout his entire career, making plain his suffering but also his inspiration to fight back; not physically but placing himself in positions where such arguments became irrelevant. Another diadem of nonconformity being Iacocca’s gaze: the dealers were everything to him and this is where his Ford career began in earnest, selling trucks in Chester, Pennsylvania. 

Two instances for 1956 changed Iacocca’s outlook. The first being the Ford safety drive where he ended up with egg literally on his face when showing a roomful of delegates how the latest soft dashboard wouldn’t break an egg dropped from height. The first two eggs mis-aimed, the third hit the target and burst, with the fourth and final egg resolving the issue. To a round of applause after jeers of laughter, lesson leaned. Ford dropped the idea of selling safety as quickly as the eggs.

The other idea propelled Iacocca into the big time. Using his “$56 for ‘56” his idea of a 20% down payment followed by thirty six months paying $56 heralded a sales phenomenon. Previously in last place, his new Philadelphia region suddenly topped the sales charts and with this initiative, a promotion to Washington. It’s believed this incentive alone shifted 75,000 extra cars.

Around this time he was introduced to Robert MacNamara whose 417,000 Ford Falcon sales inspired Iacocca to beat. It wouldn’t take long. Aged 36, Iacocca was now General Manager of the Ford Division where he stated “half the people had no clue who I was and the other half couldn’t pronounce my name.” Making enemies through his ethnicity and his meteoric rise through the ranks upset many. But his first meeting with ‘God’ (Henry Ford II), went well; they not only got on but Henry liked Lee who had now wisely dropped the Lido for his new moniker. The title of the piece comes from the suggestion made by Ford to help pronounce his surname.

Finding his feet managerially, his public speaking required work, so he undertook a Dale Carnegie course with great effect. But on matters ego, there was no compromise: “A strong ego is essential. You know your own strengths, confident, realistic outlooks. A large ego can be destructive, always seeking out recognition, talking down as he’s above everyone. 

A genius it does not take to see who and where Iacocca places such vehemence; Henry Ford II and his deteriorating physical and mental health. Published in 1984, HF-II passed away in 1987. Is this a case of Iacocca’s public dirty washing? One is inclined to say he was setting the record straight. From chummy sounding meetings to an interpersonal war of attrition, Hank the Deuce subsequently undertook his sole purpose of removing the man who had helped turn Ford’s fortunes around. 

By 1968, Iacocca looked set for Ford presidency until an unusual move from Henry altered tangents. Avidly watching rivals, GM, Henry caught wind that their chairman, Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen was to be sacrificed. “Loving intrigue,” Henry rented an Oldsmobile from Hertz, wore a dark raincoat and drove to Bunkie’s home. The upshot being the repositioning of incumbent head Arjay Miller to vice-chairman, leaving no room for Iacocca.

The book doesn’t state where Iacocca was on a family skiing holiday when the news broke, the company sending their DC-3 to return him immediately to see the new boss. Henry placated Iacocca with a “bide your time” epithet. And the reason for Knudsen’s subsequent firing nineteen months later? For not knocking on Henry’s office door! 

Iacocca sees his dream come true on 10th December 1970 – president of 432,000 employees, making almost five million vehicles per year and with $515M in profits. Less than eight years later, even on a financial high, acrimonious feelings, alongside indiscreet undermining of Iacocca’s position came to a head. Subsequently firing people associated with the president, Henry with brother, William Clay Ford, faced Iacocca down in the grand chambers, mid-July 1978. Awkward procrastination led to Henry’s now infamous retort, “well, sometimes you just don’t like someone.” Iacocca was out. Hank saw fit to offer no other rationale. 

Pulling no punches, Iacocca reveals Henry’s heavy drinking, the wild accusations, bigoted comments, racially aggressive rants along with omnipotent aura, concluding he was “working for a real bastard.” One columnist regarded the situation as “flying too close to Air Force One,” for no matter the reputation or acumen, only a Ford could rule the dynasty, however fragile or misguided. 

Always have an icon to hand when you’re serving up malaise-era dross. Lido before the fall. Image: automotivehistory.org

Truth, fiction or a combination? Is an autobiography at the behest of the author or the reader? Why should Iacocca lie? He admits to being no angel but his treatment at Henry’s hand appears bizarrely hostile. What Iacocca faced next – turning around the troubled Chrysler Corporation – made this part of his story a comparative walk in the park.

More in part two.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

12 thoughts on “Try A-Coke-Ah (Part One)”

  1. Thank you, Andrew – I must add his autobiography to my reading list, along with David Twohig’s book, Inside The Machine.

    I find one has to concentrate a bit when reading histories like this and recall that things like the Mustang (and Qashqai) weren’t sure-fire hits when they were being developed – they were massive, nail-biting risks.

    I look forward to part 2.

  2. Good morning Andrew. An excellent account, thank you, although I must take issue with the caption on your second photo: the presence of the original Mustang in the first photo merely served to highlight what a misbegotten terribly proportioned lash-up the Mustang II was:

    Does anyone else see shades of the Cortina Mk3 in the Mustang II’s windscreen, scuttle and waistline?

    Except, of course, for the fact that the Cortina is far better looking.

    1. Oh, yes – I can see that. Same Pinto engine, too, perhaps?

      The mk2 cortina and ‘68 (ish) Australian Falcon’s front ends are very similar, also, so there was clearly a lot of cross-continent ideas sharing.

    2. They did share some engines, the manual gearbox and had similar front suspension. The Mustang II is longer overall but has a shorter wheelbase. Not surprisingly the back seats are tight.

    3. The Mustang II is indeed an eyesore. They really messed up big that time.

    4. Daniel: As the guilty party regarding the offending caption (Editor’s privilege don’t you know), I remain unrepentant.

      We might sneer at the Mustang II, but it hit the market at just the right time and apparently, sold strongly, so while it might have lacked the glamour of the original (and the proportions are woeful, I grant you), it was a success.

    5. Speaking of resemblance, the face of the 1974-1978 Mazda 818 has quite a likeness to that of the Mustang II in my opinion:

    6. Seeing that photo, I thought “that’s a perfect encapsulation of Malaise Era and why it was called that.” I accept that the Mustang II was apposite for its time, but I still don’t like the car, where the market was; just as I accept that the BMW X6 was apposite for its time, but don’t like it and the trend it precipitated.

      I see the similarity, Daniel, but the lower side of the DLO is markedly different: the Mustang’s is one curve, while the Cortina’s starts (almost) straight like that of its German brother, but curves the other way to the Mustang’s to highlight the Coke bottle shape. I’m still not sure whether I prefer the Cortina or the much-more-familiar-to-me Taunus:

    7. I much prefer the Pinto (explosions apart) which is in a similar (ish) sort of segment.

      That Mazda resemblance and lack of resemblance is remarkable. I wonder if humans read cars’ ‘faces’ in the same way we do with people.

  3. I still have his book on the shelves, alongside biographies of Colin Chapman, Eric Clapton, Murray Walker etc. It was a “must-read”.

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