Book Offers Another View Of the 'Iacocca Legacy'

Author details auto-industry king and the Chrysler court he held


By Doron Levin

Harcourt Brace, 354 pp., $25

The vote was four to one, with most members of the Chrysler Corporation rejecting plans to purchase rival American Motors Corporation. That dissenting vote, however, belonged to Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca. ''I am the majority,'' Iacocca declared in a voice brooking no opposition. The deal went through.

Blunt, supremely confident, and yet surprisingly telegenic, Iacocca was the consummate car salesman. Hailed as the savior of Chrysler, his retirement three years ago seemed - at the time - to mark the end of an era. But he has proven to be one soldier with no interest in fading away.

Now, Iacocca is back in the spotlight again feeling the heat from his recent actions and from criticism in a new biography, ''Behind the Wheel at Chrysler: The Iacocca Legacy'' by Doron Levin.

Early this year, Iacocca resurfaced as the front man for a gambling consortium, and then as the junior partner in Kirk Kerkorian's hostile, and ultimately failed bid to take over Iacocca's former company. Add the less than flattering new biography, and this one-time Horatio Alger is starting to look more like a character from a seamy soap opera.

''Behind the Wheel at Chrysler'' is not the first word on Iacocca, and it certainly won't be the last. But for those who only know Iacocca as the American hero, it provides a compelling glimpse at the less-appealing forces behind the legend. The book is not a biography in the purist sense, as it also covers the history of Chrysler. But it is a fascinating tale of Iacocca's life.

Born of Italian immigrant parents, Iacocca landed his first job at a small Ford Motor Company zone office in 1945. It didn't take him long to prove himself a man on the move. He first burst into headlines in 1965, hailed as the father of the Mustang, a car he personally pushed through a reluctant Ford boardroom. By 1978, Iacocca was Ford's president and heir apparent to Chairman Henry Ford II. But the two men clashed, and Ford lowered the ax, explaining to Iacocca, ''I just don't like you.''

Despondent, Iacocca found a serendipitous reprieve. Chrysler was looking for a new chairman. There was only one catch: 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.

As a corporate pitchman, he also convinced the public to buy Chrysler products. He used his soapbox to sell more than soap. Two autobiographies published in the mid-80s landed Iacocca high on the bestseller lists. He raised millions for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. And at one point, Iacocca even considered running for president.

What might have come out? Possibly much of what appears in Levin's biography. The portrait that emerges is not the savvy, sensitive businessman, but a vain and petty dictator, a miser who would shave household expenses by filching light bulbs and toilet paper from the office.

Iacocca's ''mythic status as the nation's economic Winston Churchill'' was largely undeserved, contends Levin, a former New York Times automotive correspondent.

While Iacocca might be due credit for Chrysler's first turnaround, the book makes the case that there was no reason for Chrysler's second brush with bankruptcy on Iacocca's watch.

''Like the captain on the bridge of the Titanic, he apparently didn't see the danger that lurked just beneath the surface,'' Levin writes.

Forced under the terms of the federal bailout to sell off Chrysler's fleet of corporate jets, Iacocca bought a jet manufacturer as soon as the loans were paid off. Considering the company's turnaround, it might have been a justifiable perk - were it not that the acquisition diverted the money Chrysler should have spent on new products, the book states.

Making matters worse, Iacocca's interests drifted away from the business of building cars. He began to spend most of his time on pet projects, such as the Statue of Liberty restoration.

By 1990, Chrysler was in trouble again. Belatedly, new products were rushed to market. Meanwhile, an emboldened staff began to push through dramatic changes in Chrysler's management structure, empowering low-level workers to make many of the decisions once reserved for Iacocca himself.

At the time Iacocca stepped down in 1992, he was feted like a retiring war hero. But behind the scenes, Levin's book presents a very different story. Longtime allies on the Chrysler board finally had to force Iacocca to leave two years after the normally mandatory retirement age of 65.

The book's publication couldn't have been better timed. Iacocca's ties to gambling interests disappointed many of his one-time supporters. But he turned friends into enemies when he lent his name to Kerkorian's unwelcomed takeover bid. Chrysler beat back the takeover attempt and voided $31 million worth of stock warrants he tried to cash in.

The book is extremely well-researched. Even though Iacocca backed out of an interview with Levin, the author still has impressed auto journalists with her access to information. One might question the motives behind the book, however, as there are times that it has a sharp edge. But it is still a fascinating look at a man who, for years, had an uncanny way of turning a phrase and disarming foes.

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