DEARBORN, MI – Nearly a full day had gone by before national news outlets got word that automotive legend Lee Iacocca had passed away at 7:30 a.m. on July 2, 2019, in suburban Los Angeles. But news of his death had spread like wildfire in the Mustang enthusiast community almost instantly from top to bottom, and for good reason: While the many accomplishments in Lee Iacocca’s career range from being the rock-star CEO who saved Chrysler, to the author of a bestselling autobiography to the presidential appointee who led the restoration of the Statue of Liberty -- Iacocca’s greatest feat for Ford fans was spearheading one of the world’s most iconic cars, the Mustang.In declining health since making a video appearance at the Mustang’s 50th birthday celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina in April of 2014, Iacocca died in his Bel Air home due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 94. Almost immediately, tributes began pouring in from all over the world.
“Lee Iacocca was truly bigger than life and he left an indelible mark on Ford, the auto industry and our country," said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company. "Lee played a central role in the creation of the Mustang. On a personal note, I will always appreciate how encouraging he was to me at the beginning of my career. He was one of a kind and will be dearly missed.”
The Carroll Shelby International Board of Directors issued the following statement the day after Iacocca’s death: “We were sad to learn that Lee Iacocca has passed. America has lost one of its greatest patriots and the car industry, one of its greatest leaders . . . Lee’s indomitable spirit will be missed by everyone who enjoys fast, fun cars and trucks. We all owe him a great deal of gratitude.”
For decades, Iacocca had symbolized the drive, resourcefulness and determination that powered the post-war American auto industry in Detroit. Even after his retirement in 1992 and move to the West Coast, he channeled his energy into a wide range of other initiatives, including founding a company that makes olive-oil derived food products and donates its profits to diabetes research – an issue near and dear to him after his wife Mary had died from diabetes.
He once said his secret for success was that “I hire people brighter than me and then get out of their way,” but those who knew him best told us that his success came from within.
“Lee Iacocca was both a great warrior and a patriot,” longtime friend and product advisor Hal Sperlich told Ford Performance. “He had uncanny leadership skills that were truly engaging. He was also quite persuasive, and the people who worked both with and for him were inspired by him. That’s why we was such a great leader.”
While it was Sperlich’s work that devised the “Pony Car” concept which became the Mustang, he credits Iacocca’s expert salesmanship with getting the Mustang program approved by Henry Ford II, who wanted nothing to do with another new car idea in the wake of the demise of the Edsel.
“Lee was a natural salesman like no other, and could somehow come up with the right words to convince people to do what he suggested,” Sperlich told us. “While we were great friends and worked closely together throughout our careers, we also didn’t always agree. Although he was a very demanding boss, he was also respectful of differing opinions. And he made working with him enjoyable. He believed if you didn’t have fun doing what you do for a living, you should do something else that drives you.”
Another of Iacocca’s Mustang insiders was Gale Halderman, the Ford stylist who penned the original Mustang’s classic shape. Gale often shares many of his Iacocca stories with Mustang enthusiasts who visit his Museum Barn near Dayton, Ohio, but he contacted Ford Performance after Iacocca’s death to share what he believes made Lee the automotive talent of the century.
“Iacocca was like no one you’ll ever meet in this industry,” Halderman told Ford Performance. “It was easy to see when you talked to him that despite his education in engineering, he liked to figure out what would sell -- he liked working with people more than machines.
“He was approachable one-on-one, and always loved to come down to the Design Studio after hours to see the clay models we were working on. He’d roll that cigar and offer his comments on some of the designs – but in a way that made you think he was speaking for the customer and what they would say about a particular design.
“I actually changed the way I designed cars after working with Iacocca,” Halderman admitted. “I used to only draw cars that I thought were pretty. But Lee got me to thinking what kinds of designs would draw people in – what would sell. He got me to figure out how to design cars that would be universally loved by the public and pleasing to their eyes and not just in the eyes of the designer.
“It was his leadership that was amazing to watch. He got everyone excited about their jobs. When he got done talking to us about something, I couldn’t wait to get back to work on a project – he was that energizing. I’m very proud to have worked under him.”
Both Sperlich and Halderman told us that Iacocca most remarkable skill was his understanding of what sort of vehicles to bring to market and what people would want to buy at a given time – even if it meant creating all new segments or revamping ones that were falling out of favor.
Many auto analysts agree that there’s likely not a single individual, except for perhaps Henry Ford himself, who had a bigger impact on the automotive world than Lee Iacocca had had in the upper echelon of the industry. The dynamic son of a hard-working Italian immigrant, Iacocca grew up in Pennsylvania and got an engineering degree at Lehigh University and a Masters from Princeton before joining Ford Motor Company and completing an extensive business training program – all by his 22nd birthday. Ford had offered him an engineering job, but he passed on it after finding an available sales position within the company.
Bold, competitive and amazingly intuitive, Iacocca came up with a successful “$56 per month for a '56 Ford” promotion that helped propel him though a series of truck and car marketing manager posts and finally the general manager’s job. But because he knew that Ford product decisions were made only at the vice-president level and above, he set a goal for himself to be a VP by time he was 35. He was less than a month past his 36th birthday when Henry Ford II made him VP of Ford Division in November of 1960.
The young upstart Iacocca immediately set out to change Ford’s stodgy image among boomers who were entering the workforce in a strong economy. To his credit, he surrounded himself with other passionate “car guys” who soon became major players in the Mustang saga: There was the chief product engineer Don Frey, and his product- planning genius (as Iacocca often called him), Sperlich. There was also special projects and racing manager Jacque Passino (who would be key to bringing in racer Carroll Shelby). Plus Don Petersen, who headed up marketing (only later to become Ford’s president), and his research manager, Bob Eggert.
Also key was design chief Gene Bordinat and some of his top stylists: Joe Oros, Halderman and Charles Phaneuf. There were also contributions from people like Phil Clark, a young designer who was rumored to have actually toyed with the Mustang brand theme at General Motors before penning the famed Pony emblem and coming over to Ford. Plus John Najjar, who promoted the Mustang name and helped design the Mustang I Prototype – a mid-engined, two-seat, rear-drive sports car concept that won international acclaim in 1962 as a possible Corvette-fighter from Ford.
But Iacocca knew that any production car he proposed would have to be a much more practical and less-complex-to-build four-seater if it were to ever see an assembly line. So his team was tasked with turning that dream into a reality while he attempted to sell the idea to top management – which turned out to be quite a challenge in and of itself.
Ford’s “youth market” car at that time was the reliable Falcon, a strong-selling if somewhat uninspired economy car that Iacocca helped give more sporting pretensions by 1962. By then a dolled-up Falcon Futura model gained a V-8, bucket seats and a floor shifter, but those additions did little to slow the interest that Chevy’s Monza version of the Corvair was enjoying. Iacocca knew Ford needed a fresh, new sporting entry – and soon – if he was going to be able to capitalize on this burgeoning market.
Despite repeated attempts to gain the go-ahead to produce a stylish, new “youth car,” Iacocca's proposals were regularly rejected. Frey and the team had come up with a wonderfully clean design for the project, codenamed "T-5," in early 1962. An internal competition in the design studio produced a unanimous favorite in less than two weeks – a low, sleek four-place compact with a long hood and short deck. Mainly penned by Halderman, who had been working with Oros on what they dubbed the "Cougar," the basic design of this "Special Falcon" (as the early prototypes were called) would eventually reach production relatively unmolested – a hallmark of many timeless designs, yes, but truly a rarity in an auto industry long plagued with "design by committee" products.
Iacocca believed it was uniquely appealing so he and Frey took it to top execs for yet another “youth car” sales pitch in September of '62. Again, concern over how much Iacocca's proposal would cut into Falcon sales led the discussion, and the fact that the company had already set aside a whopping $250 million to revamp the entire Ford lineup for 1965 certainly didn't help his request for a quarter of that to experiment on a new model.
The good news was that the most important person they needed to convince – Henry Ford II – had finally given in to the idea and decided he’d approve the proposal against the advice of his top advisors. The bad news was that Iacocca was given a budget of a paltry $40 million to develop and tool up the car and get it to market in less than two years – 18 months to be exact. With the odds so stacked against them, it was a risk few managers would ever take. But Iacocca and Frey were thrilled just getting the chance.
Unfazed, Iacocca would go before the board to request more funding for tooling a second assembly plant in San Jose, California, which he assured them was needed in addition to production at the Dearborn assembly plant to meet demand for his new car. It proved an incredibly astute move, and a key enabler for the Mustang sales records that would follow.
Even with today’s advancements in technology and manufacturing, an 18-month concept-to-production timetable for an all-new vehicle borders on the impossible. And the Mustang faced other tough goals, too, such it had to offer a full range of equipment, weigh less than 2,500 pounds and cost less than $2,500. But almost magically, this Mustang project had deeply inspired Iacocca’s team, and they had no time to worry about what might not work. With the basic styling nailed down, the challenge became pushing Ford’s stamping technology to its limit to achieve such things as the design’s complex front-end bodylines and the sweep of the rear quarters and lower valence. The next order of business was to try and employ as many existing mechanical parts as possible, so much of Mustang’s underpinnings were lifted directly from the Falcon. What was different was Mustang’s unibody, sporting a longer wheelbase, wider track and lower overall height, including the cowl, floorpan and subsequent seating position.
While lowering was important in helping to give Mustang a sportier feel, stiffening the unitized body structure was also necessary to improve the car’s handling. To do this, engineers devised an innovative “torque box” system into the car’s skeletal structure – an industry first. The Falcon’s suspension and steering components were modified to work in this new body, as well the dashboard layout and optional drivetrains. The standard engine for the first Mustang would be Falcon’s optional 170-cubic-inch inline six-cylinder, rated at 101 horsepower. And the Mustang’s initial V-8 offering would be another Falcon option, the 164 horsepower 260-cubic inch Windsor small-block.
By October 1963, pre-production Mustang prototypes were running around Ford test facilities in a mad dash to gain engineering sign-off in order to make the car’s “Job One” production date of March 9, 1964. To help kick off the marketing and begin creating the car’s public identity, Bordinat turned a Mustang prototype into show car that was called “Mustang II,” mostly to indicate some product lineage with the two-seat mid-engined sports car that was shown the year before, which was now renamed “Mustang I.”
Painted the same white with a blue tri-stripe down the middle just like the two-seater, the Mustang II concept was revealed at Watkins Glen as a promotional teaser, as Mustang I had been. With its customized, v-shaped nose and tail and chopped, removable hardtop, Iacocca knew that Mustang II was not going to have any impact on the real production Mustang, no matter what the public reaction was. Not surprisingly, after being shown on CBS television and in newspapers and magazines around the world, the overall response to the Mustang II concept car was favorable.
Iacocca’s car-passionate niche group within Ford called the Fairlane Committee had clearly and correctly seen that boomer buyers wanted something truly different. Their answer, a fun-to-drive, affordable car with a fresh, clean design and sporting attributes, was exactly the right car for the right time. And because of their hard work and dedication, Ford was able to launch the Mustang – unlike the Edsel – with many of the potential problems and concerns already ironed out.
From the start, Mustang has had a look all its own, with proportions that express energy and an eagerness to be on the move. There were sports cars and muscle cars before it, but the first Mustang “notchback” coupes and convertibles had unique appeal.
In the parlance of the times, the introduction of the Mustang in the spring of 1964 was a “happening.” What created such unbridled enthusiasm for this new car? Simple: Great design, affordable performance and one of the most innovative and sustained marketing and public relations campaigns in history.
The very fact that the Mustang was launched in spring was part of the strategy to gain attention for the new model. Up until this time, most American cars were revealed in the fall of each model year, meaning typical production would begin at the end of summer. But Iacocca’s team felt the need to break from tradition to assure that the car would have the attention of the automotive press all to itself, so the plan was to officially unveil the all-new Ford Mustang at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964. The thinking was that nothing short of the World’s Fair would attract enough of the public spotlight, so they set into motion a well-coordinated publicity plan leading up to that date.
Part of the strategy was to have at least one new Mustang on display at each and every one of the 8,100-plus Ford dealerships across the nation on the day of the official unveiling, so cars had to be built and shipped in advance. To that end, the very first production Mustang was a white-over-red convertible that rolled off the Dearborn assembly line on March 9, 1964. Ford Division had worked with dealers to arrange delivery of the first cars and coordinate their arrival in showrooms all over America.
In the meantime – between a series of "embargoed" press briefings on the design and engineering of the Mustang in January and the actual reveal at the Fair in New York in April – Ford Public Affairs slowly leaked details of the car and offered preview drives in an effort to build Mustang mania to a fever pitch. The company even invited a number of editors from college newspapers to Dearborn and let them each drive a Mustang around for a while to “get their opinions.” There were a number of cases of these supposedly “top-secret” Mustangs being driven “right out in public view” where they were likely to be seen by the media. Naturally, the sightings that resulted were reported in major news outlets. A few days before the world reveal, Ford demonstrated the car’s reliability by having 100 members of the press participate in massive Mustang rally from New York to Dearborn, where all 70 cars that made the trip had arrived without a single problem.
None of this, however, compared with the unprecedented media exposure the car received at its well-publicized unveiling.
On the evening before the official introduction at the World’s Fair, Ford ran commercials for the new Mustang on all three television networks simultaneously, which were seen by an estimated 29 million viewers, and then followed them up the next day with full-page ads placed in 2,600 newspapers all across the United States. Mustangs were put on display in the lobbies of 200 Holiday Inns and at 15 of the country’s busiest airports. Both Newsweek and Time magazines ran cover stories on Ford’s Iacocca and his Mustang. Time went so far as to declare that Iacocca has “made the Mustang’s design so flexible, its price so reasonable and its options so numerous that its potential appeal reaches toward two-thirds of all U.S. car buyers. Priced as low as $2,368 an able to accommodate a small family in its four seats, the Mustang seems destined to be a sort of Model A of sports cars – for the masses as well as the buffs.”
At the fair itself, Mustang was the star of Ford Motor Company’s “Wonder Rotunda” and the Disney-designed "Magic Skyway" exhibits. Fairgoers seated in one of 12 Wimbledon white Mustang convertibles (with engines, transmissions and fuel tanks removed) rode the Disney Magic Skyway through exhibits that displayed the Earth’s past from the age of dinosaurs (complete with “animatronic cavemen”) to the glass-and-steel buildings of the "City of Tomorrow." The 22-story Rotunda itself was the size of three football fields, and required enough steel to erect a skyscraper.
It was the most successful product launch in automotive history, and set off near-pandemonium at Ford dealers all over the continent. Nearly 22,000 orders were taken the day the car went on sale as interested customers swarmed their local dealerships, sparking scenes that resembled Beatlemania, which was sweeping the country at the same time. Ford itself fanned the flames of the buying frenzy by issuing press releases about the showroom shenanigans, with one more incredible than the next.
One report had a Chicago Ford dealer being forced to lock his doors early and summon the police to try and evict Mustang prospects who had stormed his sales floor and refused to leave until they had seen the car. Another had claimed a dealership in Pittsburgh was so overflowing with customers that the salesmen couldn’t get their only Mustang down off the wash rack and into the showroom because so many people had crowded underneath it. Then there’s the one out of Garland, Texas, where 15 customers were said to have bid on the same Mustang; the winner reportedly insisted on sleeping in the car overnight to guarantee that it wouldn't get sold from under him before his check cleared the bank the next day. Still another news account had a passing cement truck driver so taken with trying to get a look at a new Mustang on display that he crashed his truck straight through the showroom window. Some say it actually happened in Seattle, while others claim it really took place in San Francisco.
While not all such early sales stories have been substantiated, one thing is certain: Ford had many more customers for the Mustang than it had cars in April of 1964. Those initial shipments were immediately snapped up, and orders for thousands more were placed on the very first day, with an estimated four million people jamming into Ford showrooms that first weekend alone. Demand was such that following the World’s Fair, even some of the display cars were reclaimed and refurbished before being sold through Ford’s employee resale lot.
Throughout its launch, Mustang made full use of the ever-increasing popularity of commercial television. Early Mustang television advertising portrayed the car as a life-transforming device. In one ad, a dowdy antique dealer is seen skipping his habitual lunch in a teashop for a romantic getaway with a beautiful young woman. Not to miss out on the fun, a normally staid scientist named Liz is transformed into a bon vivant with an entourage of adoring men once she starts driving a new Mustang.
Print ads were in on the fun, too. One of them put a twist to the title of a contemporary book popular with young women in the hopes of selling them on the advantages of Mustang’s economical side. Titled "Six and the Single Girl," the spot promoted the practicality and sporty style of the six-cylinder Mustang after the take-rate on the V-8 Mustangs outstripped the stockpile of available engines.
The glamour of the movies also helped build the romance associated with Mustang. The early Mustangs have figured prominently in hundreds of notable films to date, beginning in 1964 with the popular James Bond film Goldfinger, where Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 had chased after a white Mustang convertible. The Mustang was appearing almost everywhere you looked – in your neighbors’ driveways, on the street, in the movies, on television, in magazines and even in toy stores. Iacocca and his team had created for Ford an entire “Mustang Generation.”
Mustang’s impressive sales statistics do not include the millions of other Mustang-inspired products that were licensed by Ford Motor Company. From model cars to slot car sets, the Mustang soon became a plaything for children young and old. That first year, the least expensive Mustang you could buy was a pedal-powered car that became the hot Christmas gift of 1964, when more than 93,000 of them were sold. Another very affordable 1965 Mustang was the $537 "Mustang Jr.," built for Ford by the Powercar Company of Mystic, Conn. This 70-inch "fun" car could be ordered with a 2¼-horsepower, two-cycle gasoline engine, good for 20 mph, or as a battery-powered model that cruised at a more sedate 5 mph.
All of this, of course, was driven by the amazing popularity of Ford’s own Mustang, whose runaway sales success caught even Iacocca and his team by surprise. Initial company estimates pegged annual Mustang sales at about 100,000 units a year, but it quickly became apparent that many more would be needed to meet demand when the backlog of orders forced a two-month wait for the typical delivery. Ford quickly added a third assembly facility in Metuchen, New Jersey, and kept the factories going full-tilt in an effort to catch up. By the end of 1964, the Mustang racked up over 120,000 sales, and an astounding 419,000 in the car’s first 12 months on the market, shattering all previous sales records of any one model in the history of the automobile. (Ironically, the record of just under 417,000 had been held by none other than Ford’s own Falcon.)
Iacocca’s uncanny marketing insight and salesmanship helped Ford deliver a unique and lasting formula for Mustang’s appeal, and its success as an American automotive icon is nothing short of staggering. His further green-lighting of Ford’s “Total Performance” era of the 1960s, the pushback against imports with the Maverick and the Pinto, and the nod to luxury buyers with the Mercury Cougar, the Continental Mark III and a series of Ford Thunderbirds all add to Iacocca’s product legacy at Ford.
Iacocca’s time at Ford saw him develop into a charismatic business leader and an automotive celebrity with genuine star power. Mustang fans see him as a hero. Iacocca once told Hemmings, “I fell in love with cars early on, especially Fords. Our family liked Fords. I always wanted to work for Ford.”
Fans of Ford’s famed Blue Oval around the world over are thankful he did.