Iacocca graduated from Allentown's William Allen High School and Lehigh University in neighboring Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with a degree in industrial engineering. He is an alumnus of Theta Chi Fraternity. After graduating from Lehigh, he won the Wallace Memorial Fellowship and went to Princeton University, where he took his electives in politics and plastics. He then began a career at Ford Motor Company as an engineer. Eventually becoming dissatisfied with that job, he switched career paths at Ford, entering the company's sales force. He was quite successful in sales, and he moved up through the ranks of Ford, moving ultimately to product development.
Iacocca was married to Mary McCleary in 1956. McCleary died after a decades-long struggle with diabetes. Both before and after her death, Iacocca became a strong advocate for better medical treatment of diabetes patients, who frequently faced debilitating and fatal complications.
Iacocca was involved with the design of several successful Ford automobiles, most notably the Ford Mustang; he was also the "moving force," as one court put it, behind the notorious Ford Pinto. He promoted other ideas which did not reach the marketplace as Ford products. Eventually, he became the president of the Ford Motor Company, but he clashed with Henry Ford II and ultimately, in 1978, he was notoriously fired by Henry II, despite Ford's posting a $2 billion dollar profit for the year.
After being fired at Ford, Lee was aggressively courted by the Chrysler Corporation, which was on the verge of going out of business (at the time, the company was losing millions due to recalls of the Chrysler F platform vehicles, the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare). Iacocca joined Chrysler and began rebuilding the entire company from the ground up, laying off many workers, selling Chrysler's loss-making European division to Peugeot, and bringing in many former associates from Ford. At the time of his ascendance to upper echelon management at Ford, the company's management was almost entirely constructed of the Ford family and other White Anglo Saxon Protestants, making the appointment of Iacocca, an Italian Catholic, something of an ethnic and religious breakthrough for the company.
Iacocca started as Chrysler's chairman, and began a heavy restructuring of Chrysler. At the time Iacocca took over, Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy, as it was focusing most of its money on large, fuel thirsty cars that the public didn't want due to a fuel crisis at the time. First, Iacocca announced plant closures, job layoffs, and his plans for the company. His next move was cutting several large models, which were heavily unprofitable, and put the subcompact Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon into production. The Omni and Horizon became instant hits, selling over 300,000 units each their debut year, showing what was to come for Chrysler.
Realizing that the company would go out of business if it did not receive a significant amount of money to turn the company around, Iacocca approached the United States Congress in 1979 and asked for a loan guarantee. While it is sometimes said that Congress lent Chrysler the money, it, in fact, only guaranteed the loans. Most thought this was an unprecedented move, but Iacocca pointed to the government bail-outs of the airline and railroad industries, arguing that more jobs were at stake in Chrysler's possible demise. In the end, though the decision was controversial, Iacocca received the loan guarantee from the government.
After receiving this reprieve, Chrysler released the first of the K-Car line, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant in 1981, compact automobiles based on design proposals that Ford had rejected during Iacocca's tenure there. Coming right after the oil crisis of the 1970s, these small, efficient and inexpensive, front-wheel drive cars sold rapidly. In addition, two years later Chrysler released the minivan, based on a proposal of a key subordinate (Hal Sperlich) hired away from Ford; to this day, Chrysler leads the automobile industry in minivan sales. Because of these three cars, and the reforms Iacocca implemented, the company turned around quickly and was actually able to repay the government-backed loans seven years earlier than expected; most of it came from cars built on the K platform.
Iacocca was also responsible for Chrysler's acquisition of AMC in 1987, which brought the profitable Jeep division under Chrysler's corporate umbrella. It also created the short-lived Eagle division, formed from the remnants of AMC. By this time, AMC had already finished most of the work with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which Iacocca desperately wanted. The Grand Cherokee would not be released until 1992 for the 1993 model year, at which time Iacocca left Chrysler.
Other work and activities
In May 1982, Ronald Reagan appointed Iacocca to head the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which was created to raise funds for the renovation and preservation of the Statue of Liberty. He continues to serve on the board of the foundation.
In 1984, Iacocca co-authored (with William Novak) his autobiography, titled Iacocca: An Autobiography. It was a hugely successful book, proving to be the best selling non-fiction hardback book of 1984 and 1985.
In 1988, Iacocca co-authored (with Sonny Kleinfeld) Talking Straight , a book meant as a counter-balance to Akio Morita's Made in Japan, a non-fiction book praising Japan's post-war hard-working culture. Talking Straight praised the innovation and creativity of Americans.
Politically, Iacocca supported the successful Republican candidate George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. In the 2004 presidential election, however, he endorsed Bush's unsuccessful opponent, Democrat John Kerry. Most recently, in Michigan's 2006 Gubernatorial race, Iacocca appeared in televised political ads endorsing Republican candidate Dick DeVos.
Following the death of Iacocca's wife from diabetes, he has become an active supporter of research to find a cure for the disease, and has been one of the main patrons of the innovative diabetes research of Denise Faustman at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2000, Iacocca founded Olivio Premium Products, which manufactures the Olivio line of food products made from olive oil. He donates all profits from the company to diabetes research. In 2004, Iacocca launched Join Lee Now, a national grassroots campaign that will bring Faustman's research to human clinical trials in 2006.
Iacocca has been an advocate of "Nourish the Children", an initiative of Nu Skin Enterprises, since its inception in 2002. He is currently its chairman. He takes an active interest in the initiative and helped to donate a generator for the Malawi, Africa VitaMeal plant.
In 2006, it was announced that Lee Iacocca has signed a deal with Simon & Schuster to publish a new book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? in 2007 co-written with Catherine Whitney .
Lehigh University support
Iacocca led the funding campaign to expand Lehigh University into buildings formerly owned by Bethlehem Steel. Iacocca Hall on the Mountaintop Campus of Lehigh University houses the College of Education, the biology and chemical engineering departments, and The Iacocca Institute, which is focused on global competitiveness.
"Return" to Chrysler
In July 2005, Iacocca returned to the airwaves as Chrysler's pitchman, along with stars such as Jason Alexander and Snoop Dogg, to promote Chrysler's "Employee Pricing Plus" program; the ads reprise the "If you can find a better car, buy it" line that was Iacocca's trademark in the 1980s. In return for his services, Iacocca and DaimlerChrysler agreed that his fees, plus a $1 donation per vehicle sold from July 1 through December 31, 2005, would be donated to the Iacocca Foundation for diabetes research.
- In order to remember the correct spelling of his name, Chrysler Corporation employees devised the mnemonic; I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation Always. An alternative mnemonic can be I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation America.
- The girl in the 2005 Iacocca/Chrysler commercial was an actress, not his actual granddaughter, as many people think.
- Iacocca has the world's largest collection of Matchbox cars and recently donated his K-car collection to the Stop Syphilis Soon charity auction, fetching a sum of $50,000.
- Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is sometimes compared to him, since he returned Nissan to profitability in only a year, in what is considered one of the greatest automotive turnarounds in history, similar to Chrysler's.
- Yocco's Hot Dogs, a famous fast food restaurant establishment with six Lehigh Valley locations, was founded in 1922 by Iacocca's uncle. It was originally called Iacocca's, but Pennsylvania Dutch pronounced it more like Yocco's, so the name was ultimately changed to Yocco's.
- In the 1987 movie, RoboCop, which takes place in future Detroit, one "Mediabreak" reports an incident that took place at fictitious "Lee Iacocca Elementary School."
- Iacocca has been married several times, and always in a Catholic ceremony.