On the road with `Iacocca'

VACATION'S end. Eight hours on the interstates of the American Northeast. Preparing, I gather a ``survival kit'' from our seashore friends. For our daughters in the back seat, snacks and taped Disney stories will help. My husband, the driver, has the game of the road to play, the bouts of boredom interrupted by split-second decisions. Heading north along New Jersey's Garden State Parkway, I'm in charge of the toll quarters. But for the highway hours ahead I have my own survival kit, the current best-seller, ``Iacocca.'' What could be better company on a long car ride than the biography of America's most famous automobile executive? Newspapers report sales of more than 2 million copies in hardback alone. My borrowed, broken-in paperback had already made the rounds at our friends' beach house, more in demand than the rest of the assorted beach-blanket books put together.

I want to find out why. Surely media familiarity cannot, in itself, guarantee such blockbuster sales. Surely Lee Iacocca's Chrysler television ads aren't enough of a marketing ploy to spin off 2 million copies sold at today's hefty prices. No, that sales figure sends an intriguing message. It says that something more complicated is going on, that ``Iacocca'' is touching us on some deeper level. My game, between toll booths and map work, is to figure out what's up.

By the first overpass it's clear that ``Iacocca'' is not selling for its literary appeal. No matter. Horatio Alger Jr. wasn't much of a stylist either, and ``Iacocca'' is an updated Horatio Alger story. Here is Lido (Lee) Iacocca, the son of a happy-go-lucky Italian immigrant-entrepreneur. In boyhood he is any American parent's dream of a son -- as sports-loving as he is studious, as loyal to the family hearth and home as he is ambitious for success in the wider world. The image of little Lee sitting i n his father's U-rent-it Fords, already mad for automobiles, is picture perfect. Maybe too perfect? Can it be that in the sophisticated 1980s we still hunger for the pat success forumula? Is that the sales secret?

Our quarter hits the exact-change basket, and I read on. The car skims high over the wetlands, and the bright green marshes fall away as we glide across concrete marvels of highway engineering. It's northern New Jersey, and Iacocca is advancing in his career with Ford.

Actually, the book and the roadway scene are merging into one. Lee Iacocca's own cars appear among the ``neighbors'' in other lanes. To the left, in golden yellow, is his classic Mustang from the mid-'60s, still looking wonderful with its low lines and scoop sides. There on the right is the Lincoln Continental Mark IV in white. We pass, and I look at the driver's profile. At the wheel she looks satisfied. Chrysler's K-cars, of course, abound. As we head toward the Tappan Zee Bridge it occurs to me, I am

literally in the middle of Iacocca's biography. This highway is the showroom of the man's life.

And it is the showroom of American life too. Even the trucks say so, their trailers loaded with plywood from Virginia, tires from Akron. A spanking white tractor-trailer passes, a knockout of a bathroom painted on its side. It carries glass shower doors from Tennessee. Our daughters ooh and aah from the back seat. (``Did you see that bath-room!'')

I saw. But I'm beginning to see something else. The secret of the ``Iacocca'' sales mystique is beginning to unfold even as I learn what the book is not about. For ``Iacocca'' is not chock-full of auto-industry insiders' scandals. John De Lorean's ``On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors'' is still the better bet for the seamy side of Detroit, just as Hollywood stars' expos'es better satisfy the appetite for personal gossip. In that department, the husband-father Iacocca is so perfect he is no news at all. Nor is ``Iacocca'' a smash best-seller as a campaign biography, despite the Iacocca-for-president flag hoisted at the end. (I skipped ahead.)

No, the clue to the reading public's love affair with this book lies elsewhere, in the surrounding cars with names like Accord, Starion, Corolla, Maxima. Shiny, bright, sporty, these imports are dark reminders of American jobs lost, hints of American money cycled back across the Pacific. They bring to mind nasty terms like trade deficits, budget deficits, the too-strong dollar, the whole looming financial mess the car radio reports in news on-the-hour.

And here the appeal of ``Iacocca'' becomes obvious. In part he is, as one newspaper reported, ``a sort of industrial folk hero'' who tackled the government and the unions. But the appeal goes deeper than that, deep into national hopes and anxieties. For ``Iacocca'' operates on a symbolic level that transcends the success formula of the Horatio Alger story. The book is really an American epic about the hero who appears when the nation needs him. In this sense Chrysler isn't just one corporation, but a me taphor for America itself -- badly managed, we fear, sloppy and bungled, out of control, somehow jeopardized. The Iacocca-hero comes just in time, knowing how to set it right, how to save the sagging fortunes of the empire and restore it to glory. ``Iacocca,'' I realize, is a wish book for what millions of us suspect are perilous times. He is the hero we want, the hero we need. Our own family rolls into the New England states just as Chrysler turns a profit.

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