At 82 years old, Lee Iacocca is a seasoned individual with a firm handshake and solid conviction, as whet-stoned sharp as he was when he sold Henry Ford II on the idea to build a sporty, four-place automobile that would become an American icon.
The Mustang was a tough sell for Lee, who finally convinced Mr. Ford that the car was a good idea because hundreds of thousands of baby boomers were coming of age and they wanted sportier cars than Ford's stodgy lineup. After widening the prototype a pinch to satisfy Henry, Lee sent the Mustang to market where it became a phenomenal overnight success and changed the public's perception of Ford Motor Company forever.
Amazingly, Lee never owned a new Mustang, which is ironic considering his role in the car's runaway success. Instead, he did exactly what he was supposed to when he was a Ford executive-drive and evaluate all kinds of automobiles. When he wasn't doing that, a driver picked him up at his Bloomfield Hills home outside of Detroit for the ride to and from Ford World Headquarters across town in Dearborn.
When Lee turned 50 in 1974, his wife, Mary, presented him with a Caspian Blue '6411/42 Mustang convertible, which was located and crafted by Lee's friend, Hank Carlini. The car was like new, freshly repainted and trimmed with custom pinstriping that included a horse's head at the leading edge. Hank originally penned the name "Iacocca" in this location, but Lee had him change it to a horse's head. Because Hank liked the Interior Dcor Group, he fitted the car with all the "Pony Interior" trimmings, as conceived by late Ford-stylist Damon Woods.
On July 14, 2006, Bob Fria, from the Mustang Owners Club of California, and I rolled up to Lee's iron gate. I saw his Mustang convertible at MOCC's Mustangs In The Park show a few weeks earlier. It was the first-and probably the only-Mustang show he would ever bring it to because it now belongs to his daughter, Lia. The car is significant not only for what it is-a Mustang-but also for what it means.
The Iacocca Mustang is about as you might expect for one of the oldest restorations out there. Virtually unchanged from 1974 when Mary presented it to Lee, it's a Dearborn-built, F-code 260 convertible assembled in June 1964 and delivered new to DSO 73, Salt Lake City. It's unknown where Hank found the car or how it wound up in Detroit.
The Mustang is now garage-kept and driven rarely. Before it arrived at Mustangs In The Park in June 2006, it had no brakes and had to be repaired before being driven to the show. Had you been cruising Southern California's 405 freeway that day, you would've seen the Iacocca family cruising along with the top down in the California haze.
Although the thought may have crossed your mind-and ours-Lee's Mustang isn't for sale and never will be.
The Iacocca Vision
Lee Iacocca's marketing and business instincts sent shockwaves through the company that launched his career. His vision changed everything for Ford Motor Company, because he knew how to target markets and create hot products. The Maverick became another Iacocca success story at Ford, outselling the Mustang, thanks to its practical approach and $1,995 base sticker price.
Lee was also responsible for the '74-'78 Mustang II, which enjoyed the same success as the Maverick. It was the right car at the right time, selling more than 1 million units in four years. The '79 Mustang was another success for Ford, thanks to Lee.
Toward the end of his 32-year career at Ford, Lee and ally Hal Sperlich again saw great potential in baby boomers who needed practical, roomy transportation. Lee and Hal went to Henry Ford II with a fresh idea: the minivan. Henry dismissed the idea as impractical.
When Lee left Ford in 1978, Hal and other talented people followed him to Chrysler, where Lee created a new-market phenomenon with the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan. Chrysler minivans remain best-sellers in a competitive market.
Before I met Lee three years ago for our exclusive interview in Mustang Monthly ("Iacocca Speaks Out," May '04, p.18), my perception of the retired auto executive was different than it is today. I saw Lee as a corporate big-shot who would never make time for a working-stiff automotive writer like me. It was the interview I never believed I'd get because I was told repeatedly by Lee and his Chrysler handlers for the better part of 20 years that he wasn't going to discuss the Mustang. In the latter part of 2004, he not only granted me the interview, he chatted with me in his home for two hours longer than planned, discussing everything from the Mustang to most of the challenges facing the world today.
Lee remains well grounded and close to his roots as a direct descendent of Italian immigrants. He has never forgotten the value of hard work, and at 82 years old, he continues to practice these beliefs. Fame and fortune have never gone to his head, and of all the treasures he has amassed during a lifetime of successes, it's his family he holds closest.
Mary Iacocca, Lee's wife of more than 30 years, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes shortly after they met in 1948. When complications from diabetes ultimately took her life in 1984, Lee took his grief and manifested it positively by launching The Iacocca Foundation.
"When Mary died of diabetes, my family and I began a journey to support innovative diabetes research nationwide," he says. "Twenty-two years and $230 million later, The Iacocca Foundation has supported amazing scientists and helped advance exciting research." He notes that he created JoinLeeNow to raise funds and kick research into high gear. Motivation came from an Iacocca-supported researcher who was the first to successfully reverse and cure Type 1 diabetes in mice. That breakthrough is a significant step toward finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes and may have potential for treating other diseases such as Lupus, Chrohn's, and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
As part of The Iacocca Foundation's fund-raising efforts, Lee lent his name to create The Lee Iacocca Award for car clubs around the world. The Lee Iacocca Award has been conceived to honor the most committed classic-car collectors and restorers around the world, as well as raise important funding for The Iacocca Foundation.
Clubs and individuals interested in supporting the research for a diabetes cure are encouraged to contact:
The Iacocca Foundation
17 Arlington St., 4th Floor
Boston, MA 02116