Lee Iacocca – the Mustang, the Viper, and More

Lee Iacocca with a newer model Ford Mustang
Lee Iacocca with the Ford Mustang – photo from The World of the Ford Mustang

With the recent death of Lee Iacocca this July, I thought I would take a look back at why this man was so important to the automotive industry. In news articles he’s mostly tied to Ford and the Mustang but his career was much deeper than that. Most automotive careers would be considered legendary if they stopped with the introduction of the Ford Mustang. Iacocca was just getting started. Iacocca was the first executive I knew by name as a kid. He was behind the Mustang, the GT40, the Viper and countless other cars. He built some of the most iconic names in Ford history then went to Chrysler, brought us a minivan, then floored us with the Dodge Viper. Without him, automotive history would’ve been a lot more boring.

Lee Iacocca’s Time at Ford

Lee Iacocca is most closely tied to the design of the Ford Mustang. He wanted to design a sporty car for the youth at the time and came across a design from a Ford employee. This launched the Mustang, a model that’s still in production today. He also went on to participate in the design of the Lincoln Continental Mark III (see below), Ford Escort, Mercury Cougar, and the Mercury Marquis. The Lincoln Continental Mark III was a large luxury barge with a giant Rolls-Royce style grill and a mammoth 7.5L V8 producing a paltry 365 horsepower. Who can forget that signature trunk with the spare tire bubble? Then of course there was the Mustang, which would go on to define the muscle car.

a gigantic Lincoln Continental MKIII
Lincoln Continental MkIII – photo by Danny Galvez from Pinoso, España

Lee was also involved with the Mercury Cougar. This and the Mercury Marquis were instrumental in saving Mercury at the time. My favorite Marquis model was the GT package with the 6.4L and the upgraded suspension and brakes. The Ford Escort was a small family car that would go on to dominate race tracks culminating in the Ford Escort RS Cosworth. This front-engine, four-wheel drive, turbo-charged monster produced over 200hp out of a tiny 2.0L turbo. Weighing in at well under 3,000 lbs. this thing was a rocket ship and would go on to have several race wins. It also has a pretty cool wing that I unfortunately neglected to mention in my best wings of all time article.

The Mighty GT40

While the RS Cosworth was well after he left Ford, Iacocca was involved with a race car during his time at Ford, the legendary GT40. Lee said at the time of Ford’s decision to enter GT racing “…we are accepting the toughest challenge currently available…”. Accept it they did. The Ford GT40 would go on to win Lemans several times and a version of Lee can be seen in the upcoming film Ford vs. Ferrari where he’s played by Jon Bernthal. There you have it, the Ford Mustang, Mercury Cougar, Mercury Marquis, Lincoln Continental Mark III, Ford Escort, Ford GT40. That was just his career with Ford!

Lee Iacocca’s Time at Chrysler

a red Dodge Viper (1st gen)
First Generation Dodge Viper

After Lee’s time at Ford ended (he was fired by Henry Ford II because they didn’t get along) Lee was recruited by a failing Chrysler corporation. Iacocca went on to negotiate a bailout from the U.S. Congress that saved the Chrysler corporation. While most people hate bailouts, we would not have some of the cool cars we have from Dodge today if they died with Chrysler. By saving the company, Lee was able to introduce the coolest and fastest car ever. Just kidding. While Lee was involved in some of the coolest and most iconic cars of all time, he is also credited for introducing the world to the dreaded minivan. Sales of the minivan allowed Chrysler to payoff the US Government and Lee went on to ensure the Jeep Grand Cherokee made it to production. It also set them up for something more.

While the minivan doesn’t like up the faces of enthusiasts, Lee did green-light one project that did, the Dodge Viper. The Dodge Viper was unlike anything on the market at the time. The closest competitor was the Corvette but the Viper just ate it up. It was a little two-seater with no driving aids, no air conditioning, and a massive V10 producing 400 horsepower. The car rocketed to 60 mph in just 4.2 seconds, which is still good by today’s standards. They went on to bring even more insanity in the form of the ACRs which dominated tracks across the world. Check the times at the Nurburgring. An ACR Viper is four seconds ahead of a Porsche 911 GT3 RS. Hopefully Dodge brings back the Viper, with a Hellcat engine. Maybe name it the Iacocca edition.

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