Iacocca Bows Out, But Does Not Close the Door

After a career at Ford and Chrysler, he is headed for other pursuits

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WAGS at Chrysler have had a mnemonic trick to remember the spelling of Lee Iacocca's last name: "I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation Always." It also seemed accurate.

But as the head of the nation's third-largest carmaker notes in the latest of his 81 television commercials, "It's here. Time for me to step down. Retire." On New Year's Eve, Mr. Iacocca hands the keys to his office over to his successor, Robert Eaton.

With his dark eyes framed by gold aviator glasses, Iacocca has become as familiar as family to a generation of Americans. He has had a career of incredible highs and a few terrible lows, but as the 67-year-old veteran rides off into the automotive sunset, few believe it's his last farewell.

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Born of Italian immigrant parents, Iacocca could model for Horatio Alger, scrimping and saving his way through college - earning a bachelor's degree at Lehigh University and then a master's in engineering at Princeton, where he wrote a dissertation on transmission torque converters. In 1945, Iacocca landed a job at the Pennsylvania zone office at the Ford Motor Co. - a stepping stone for a man on the move.

"I'd been told ... to keep an eye on that young Italian guy, because he was going places," recalls retired Ford public relations executive Walter Murphy. Three months later, Iacocca was made vice president and general manager.

Iacocca first grabbed headlines with the introduction of the 1965 Mustang, a car he personally pushed through a reluctant Ford boardroom.

By 1978, he was the company's president and heir apparent. But he and chairman Henry Ford II clashed, and Ford, the man whose "name is on the door," lowered the ax. Asked by Iacocca for a reason, he simply said, "I just don't like you."

Months later, Iacocca landed at the Chrysler Corporation, to find that the carmaker was going bankrupt. In a desperate bid, Iacocca announced a plan that could save Chrysler - if, suppliers, bankers, employees, even the federal government, chipped in. Without everyone's cooperation, he warned, "then the pieces of the mosaic fall off the wall." Last-minute rescue

"Iacocca single-handedly brought Chrysler back from the grave," says auto analyst Maryann Keller, of Furman Selz Inc. "Nobody can deny that. He did it virtually by the shear force of his personality."

He also made the public buy Chrysler products. Since the launch of the K-Car a decade ago, Iacocca has been the company's most visible pitchman. And Iacocca has used his soapbox to sell more than soap. So far, he's sold 7 million copies of his first autobiography.

"Why?" he asks. "Everyone who's been fired read that book. They want to, in their own little way, commiserate with the [fact that] even the mighty fall." And in Iacocca's case, the once-mighty can rise again, and speak bluntly about what it was like.

Years before Ross Perot, Iacocca was mentioned as a hard-headed, plain-speaking candidate for president. Though he refused to enter the race, Iacocca enjoyed the opportunity to speak his mind and skewer his most frequent target: the Japanese.

Iacocca is well aware of the cost of letting his attention drift. In the mid-1980s, his attention wandered away from Chrysler. He started making some questionable acquisitions - like the purchase of corporate jet maker Gulfstream Aerospace. And he spent months working to restore the Statue of Liberty and rebuild Ellis Island. Meanwhile, Chrysler began to crumble. By late 1991, many analysts feared the automaker was again going broke. A relatively strong year

Instead, Chrysler has had a better year than anyone expected, with products like the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and L/H sedans selling as fast as Chrysler can build them.

"When it's your last turn at bat, it's nice to hit a home run," Iacocca says in his latest - and last - commercial. While he's turning in his uniform, few expect Iacocca to quietly fade away.

"I would hope not, because I think he's got a lot to give," says former United Autoworkers Union president Douglas Fraser. "I see him taking positions on the issues of the day.... He's an important voice in America."

At 67, Iacocca is likely to spend more of his time with his third wife, Darrien, at their vacation home in Aspen. He may lecture at his alma mater, Lehigh University, where he funds a program focused on US competitiveness. He may also work with the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank. And corporate headhunters are hoping to lure him to another troubled company. He has spent time in recent weeks helping sculpt a bailout for troubled Trans World Airlines.

"What a great country," he says. "I have this great career and I'm in demand at my old age."

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