Autos

From saving Chrysler to buying Jeep, here are the late Lee Iacocca's greatest achievements

Key Points
  • The automobile icon, best known as "Lee," died on Tuesday at the age of 94.
  • "Lee was a change agent. He could be tough, but when he was on, he was fabulous," says his longtime colleague Bob Lutz, who worked with Iacocca for almost two decades.
Head of Ford and Chrysler Motor Company, Lee Iacocca.
David Turnley | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

Lee Iacocca transformed the auto industry during a career that stretched from the birth of the Ford Mustang through the death of American Motors.

The automobile icon, best known as "Lee," died on Tuesday at the age of 94.

According to his longtime colleague Bob Lutz, who worked with Iacocca for almost two decades, "Lee was a change agent. He could be tough, but when he was on, he was fabulous."

Here are Iacocca's three greatest achievements in the auto business according to Lutz:

1. Saving Chrysler

Chrysler Corp. Chmn. Lee Iacocca posing in front of full-sized clay model of the proposed Viper sports car being worked on by staff technicians in the Advanced International Design studio at the new Chrysler Tech Center.
Taro Yamasaki | The LIFE Images Collection | Getty Images

"Lee made the right decisions financially to save Chrysler, but that bailout also required constantly putting himself out front as the face of the company, working tirelessly," recounted Lutz. The early days of Iacocca's tenure at Chrysler also required bold decisions.

"We would be in a meeting discussing our next move at Chrysler and Lee would listen patiently. Then, he'd take a puff of his cigar, pound his fist on the table and say 'Everyone shut up! This is what we're gonna do and this is how we're gonna do it.'"

2. Buying American Motors

Jeep Grand Wagoneer parked on the street of Amsterdam, Netherlands. Taken on 4th June, 2012.
Tramino | iStock Unreleased | Getty Images

After stabilizing Chrysler in the early 80's, Iacocca was not content to stand still.

He set his sights on American Motors, an automaker that was partially owned by Renault and struggling to stay relevant. What did Iacocca see in American Motors that was worth spending $1.5 Billion? Jeep.

"Lee was an intelligent risk-taker," said Lutz. "Look at the decision to buy American Motors. If we had not done that deal, Chrysler never would have acquired the Jeep brand, which would go on to become a big part of Chrysler's success."

3. Introducing the Chrysler minivan

A Daimler Chrysler minivan is seen on the assembly line at the Windsor Assembly Plant in Canada on June 13, 2006.
Jeff Kowalsky | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Looking back now, it's hard for many to appreciate just how much the minivan changed the auto industry.

Prior to the first minivan, families that wanted space and room were primarily driving station wagons or full-size vans. All of that changed in 1984 when Iacocca and his team introduced the first minivan.

"The minivan basically saved the company," said Lutz.

Even Chrysler executives could not fully appreciate the minivan's popularity.

"We were producing 200,000 minivans at one plant and Lee wanted to open a second plant to double production," said Lutz.

He remembers many inside the company were against the idea, "but Lee kept saying it will work, it will work. So we transformed the plant in St. Louis and once it was up and running, we sold out of production almost immediately. Lee was right."

VIDEO6:1006:10
Former GM vice chair Bob Lutz remembers auto legend Lee Iacocca