Father of the Mustang

Lee Iacocca and the iconic pony car

Eric Kaminsky - May 30, 2014 11:00 AM


Lee Iacocca (left) and marketing manager Donald Frey (right) with the first year Mustang.

Photo: Jim Smart

Iococca intoruces the smaller Mustang II in 1974. He and his team sized it right for the times, after the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.

Photo: Jim Smart

Lee Iacocca today (in 2014) at age 89.

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Lee Iacocca joined Ford Motor Company’s engineering department in 1946 after graduating from Lehigh University and Princeton University. But it would be his achievements in sales that would eventually lead him to the top of the company, and along the way, would help steward the development and launch of the Mustang in in 1964.  

After spending time in engineering, he went to work in the Philadelphia sales district, offering a new 1956 Ford for $56 a month with 20 percent down. The resulting sales caught the attention of management in Detroit, and Iacocca came back to company headquarters. 

When Ford President Robert McNamara left the company to become Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy administration, Iacocca became a vice president at Ford and general manager of the Ford division. In 1965, he was named vice president for the Car & Truck Group. Two years later he was promoted to executive vice president and in 1970 was named president of Ford Motor Company.

The Mustang made its debut at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964, and it was a huge success. Ford had predicted sales of 100,000 in the first year; that mark was reached in just three months. Within 18 months, more than one million were produced. Iacocca’s gamble on a fun, sporty car that appealed to a wide audience had paid off … handsomely.

The Mustang continued to enjoy success throughout the rest of the 1960s, but clouds were gathering on the horizon. In 1973, the Arab Oil Embargo made automakers change from gas-guzzling vehicles to smaller, more efficient ones. 

Again, Iacocca and his team were there, developing car lines like the Pinto, Maverick, Lincoln Continental Mark III and even the Mustang II. While some purists bemoaned the change to a smaller Mustang, it was what was needed at the time, and would keep the nameplate in continuous production.

By 1978, conflict between Iacocca and Ford Chairman Henry Ford II would lead to Iacocca’s departure from Ford, ending a 32-year career with the automaker. 

A year later, he would become president of the Chrysler Corporation, leading it through bankruptcy with the line of K-cars and overseeing the introduction of the minivan. He retired from Chrysler in 1993, and has since been involved in a number of civic organizations, including the restoration of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the founding the Iacocca Family Foundation, which raises funds for diabetes research.