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Lee Iacocca's Legacy

A giant of the American automotive industry has died. Lee Iacocca was 94. WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks about Iacocca’s legacy with Paul Eisenstein of TheDetroitBureau.com.

SCOTT POHL: I wanted to begin by asking you how well you may have personally gotten to know Lee Iacocca.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: I probably got to know him as well as any journalist covering him back in the in the days of the transition from Ford to Chrysler, and then to saving Chrysler itself.

One of my most amazing memories of him was the day that he announced the plan to bail Chrysler out. It was a complex deal. It involved concessions from workers, from suppliers, from dealers, from the U.S. and the Canadian government, of course, plenty of banks. Iacocca laid this out to a gobstruck audience. When time came to ask questions, a reporter simply said to him, but ‘what happens if all those pieces don't come together?’ And Iacocca looked down at the audience, with this amazing ability to sum things up in words that caught your ear, he said, ‘then the pieces of the mosaic will fall off the wall.’ He could say things like that to people. He could speak to workers, to car buyers and the politicians. He had an amazing ability to turn a phrase.

Of course, there was a catchphrase that he was well known for: ‘if you can could find a better car, buy it.’

POHL: When I think about Lee Iacocca’s legacy, if all he had in his history was the Ford Mustang, what a legacy he would have had.

EISENSTEIN: It's amazing when you think about it. He had to talk Henry Ford II, who was then the chairman of Ford Motor Company, into coming up with $75-million, almost a billion today, but it almost didn't happen. And when it did, they expected to be modest success, maybe selling 100,000 cars a year. Instead, that first year they sold almost half a million. Today, 55 years later, one of the longest running nameplates and American automotive history remains the best selling sports cart in the world.

POHL: The vehicles he's most well connected to at Chrysler are the K-Car and then minivans, maybe not quite as celebrated as the Mustang but notable in their own right.

EISENSTEIN: Well, it's interesting you say that because today, as successful as the Mustang is, and as weak as the market for minivans is, they still sell more minivans than Ford sells Mustangs, so the minivan is still an extremely important part of the Chryslerline. The K-Car is long gone. In fact, Chrysler barely sells passenger cars anymore. But Iacocca was also responsible for another thing that helped transform Chrysler. That was the acquisition of American Motors, which gave it Jeep, which today is the strongest part of what's now called Fiat-Chrysler.

POHL: Is there anything that people are forgetting about Lee Iacocca today?

EISENSTEIN: You have to remember one of the most important things about Lee Iacocca. He said the thing that mattered most to him in his years was not all that he did in the auto industry, but rescuing both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In an era when people question the value of immigration, Iacocca, the son of Italian immigrants, thought that that was the most important thing to America's legacy: it's immigrant base.

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