“The Depression turned me into a materialist," Lee Iacocca (1924-2019) wrote in his autobiography. The son of an Italian immigrant, Iacocca was barely five when the Great Depression struck in 1929 and lasted for a decade. It’s not impossible to imagine the effects that tough times could have had on the young Iacocca. What followed was a post-War boom in economic activity, and Iacocca rode a wave of American materialism to acquire cult status in the global automobile industry. A mechanical engineer by training, Iacocca joined Ford Motor Company in 1946 but opted for a marketing role instead. He changed his foreign-sounding name—he was born as Lido Anthony Iacocca—in a United States where nationalist sentiments ran high after World War II, and worked endless hours to become Ford’s president, before being fired in 1978 by its chairman Henry Ford II. By then, Iacocca was already a legend. He’d launched wildly popular car models—the Ford Mustang, Maverick and Mercury Cougar, to name a few—and come up with installment schemes that let customers burn rubber down American highways without burning a hole in their pockets.
Iacocca success at his next job made him world famous. His turnaround of Chrysler is the stuff of legend. He convinced then US President Jimmy Carter for a sovereign guarantee for $1.5 billion worth of bank loans, launched a series of models, won concessions from the workers’ union, and unleashed a blitzkrieg of TV commercials featuring himself. Before long, Chrysler was selling its K-car line of fuel-efficient small cars and its all-new minivans faster than they could roll off the assembly line, so to speak. It was due to Iacocca’s design acumen, marketing genius and boldness that Chrysler, which racked up losses of $1.7 billion in 1980, had turned a profit of $2.4 billion by 1984. The car-maker, one of Detroit’s Big Three, repaid those government-backed loans seven years ahead of schedule, and Chrysler was merged with Daimler-Benz in 1998, but the man who achieved all this made sure he was around till the ripe old age of 94.