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Heard on All Things Considered

Remembering Lee Iacocca, Giant of the Auto Industry

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Image credit: The U.S. National Archives

Former Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. executive Lee Iacocca has passed at 94.

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Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler CEO and Ford Motor Co. executive best-known for saving Chrysler from bankruptcy in the 1980’s, introducing America to the Ford Mustang and the minivan, has passed at 94, multiple outlets have reported.  

He absolutely deserves credit for saving Chrysler,” says Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for AutoTrader. ”He went to the government to get loans which saved Chrysler and then paid those loans back.”

WDET’s Pat Batcheller recalls learning to drive in one of Iacocca’s K cars. He spoke with Krebs about the executives’ influence and legacy in the American auto industry. 

Read WDET’s Pat Batcheller’s Q&A with AutoTrader’s Michelle Krebs, edited for length and clarity, below.

WDET: When I took Drivers Ed, I drove a K car. That’s what we had to use. His influence was widely felt for many generations.

Michelle Krebs, AutoTrader: And they were very affordable for people, so that was a big thing. Then the minivan came, and that was something totally new and exclusive to Chrysler initially, and it still exists today so the Mustang and minivan live on long after he’s gone.

Batcheller's 2008 Dodge Grand CaravanPat Batcheller
Pat Batcheller

Batcheller’s 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan

He was widely recruited in the 1980s as a potential presidential candidate and although he certainly had the personality to be a contender, he never really seriously considered it. Or did he? I don’t know how seriously he considered it, but there were bumper stickers made: “Iacocca for President.”

I think a lot of it came after. And remember, he was an intense patriot. His parents came to the United States from Italy. He was so appreciative of the openness of the United States to his parents who came here, had children, went on and did great things. If you recall, he was head of the fundraising to restore the Statue of Liberty. I remember that being a huge thing.

Lee Iacocca, then Chrysler executive, during the 100th anniversary of the State of Liberty. Iacocca was an intense patriot.The U.S. National Archives
The U.S. National Archives

Lee Iacocca, then Chrysler executive, during the 100th anniversary of the State of Liberty. Iacocca was an intense patriot.

I’d also add, the other legacy that he leaves in Detroit that many of us see everyday is the Auburn Hills Chrysler building. I remember being in a press conference when he was lamenting, “I don’t want to spend another dime on leaky roofs here in Highland Park,” and ultimately, they built the headquarters in Auburn Hills, and it was controversial. It took a long time and people didn’t want him to do it, but he did.

How might workers remember him? Union folks in particular?

As I was scanning the internet last night, you certainly can see a lot of people saying, “Thank you for saving Chrysler.” The company exists today because of his efforts so I think there is some gratitude.

We know all the other things about the Mustang and his legacy, but what don’t we know about Lee Iacocca?

I loved covering his press conferences and his speeches. He was just a fabulous speaker and there aren’t a whole lot of those. He was a dynamic, commanding-of-the-room speaker and he had a very good sense of humor. You were always entertained in his press conferences, he’d throw out some zinger that was fun. Just a wonderful sense of humor.

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