From Car and Driver
Lee Iacocca was a salesman. He sold Fords, he sold Chryslers, he sold Chrysler Corporation, and he sold himself. He was the face of American capitalism who, in the great tradition of American capitalism, put the touch on the American government to keep his enterprise going. He was a celebrity CEO when CEOs weren't supposed to be celebrities. Lee Iacocca passed away today at age 94.
"You can have brilliant ideas," he wrote in his best-selling Iacocca: An Autobiography, "but if you can't get them across, your brains won't get you anywhere." Lido Anthony Iacocca could most certainly get an idea across.
He was born in 1924 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Nicola Iacocca and his wife, the former Antoinette Perrotta. Allentown was a thriving steel town then, mostly Pennsylvania Dutch but the sort of place where Italian immigrants could find a community to support them and an opportunity to build a life. Nicola Iacocca found his niche running a hot-dog restaurant called the Orpheum Wiener House.
"My father always drilled two things into me," Lee related in his autobiography: "Never get into a capital-intensive business, because the bankers will end up owning you. (I should have paid more attention to this particular piece of advice!) And when times are tough, be in the food business, because no matter how bad things get, people still have to eat. The Orpheum Wiener House stayed afloat all through the Great Depression."
After graduating from Allentown High School, Iacocca earned a degree in industrial engineering from nearby Lehigh University and afterward was hired by Ford as an engineer. But instead of going to work for Ford right away, Iacocca won a Wallace Memorial Fellowship to study engineering at Princeton University for a year and earn a master's degree. So, it was off to New Jersey first. He finally went to work in Dearborn as a student engineer in August 1946.
"The day I arrived, they had me designing a clutch spring," he wrote. "It had taken me an entire day to make a detailed drawing of it, and I said to myself: 'What on earth am I doing? Is this how I want to be spending the rest of my life?' " He wanted to get into sales.
Starting in the Chester, Pennsylvania, regional sales office, Iacocca was soon a rising star at Ford. By 1949, he was a zone manager out of Wilkes-Barre, visiting dealers and learning the business at the retail level. "Learning the skills of salesmanship takes time and effort," he wrote in his autobiography. "You have to practice them over and over again until they become second nature."