An automotive visionary: Friends remember Lee Iacocca

He was an automotive legend who helped rescue Chrysler from potential bankruptcy.

At 94 years old, Lee Iacocca died Wednesday from Parkinson's disease complications.

"If you got on his wrong side, he wouldn't wait a nanosecond, he would chop your head right off," said WWJ auto reporter John McElroy.

Iacocca was the maverick developer of the Ford Mustang and the visionary of the 1979 Chrysler government bailout.

"He's the most dynamic, impressive speaker I ever saw in my life. Of anybody, I'm not just talking about automotive executives," McElroy said.

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McElroy was a cub reporter in 1979, working for an auto trade magazine during the big story of the Chrysler bailout.

"No American company had ever been bailed out like this before. There was real question as to whether any money should be spent on Chrysler whatsoever," he said.

In fact, the decision to even ask Congress for money pitted Iacocca against the secretary of the treasury, and others.

"People were attacking Iacocca, they were attacking the industry for resisting fuel economy standards, they were attacking Iacocca for opposing airbags, seatbelts, any kind of federal regulations. Some people accused him of being the father of the Flaming Pinto," said former governor Jim Blanchard.

But in the end, the government loaned Chrysler one and a half billion dollars, which saved millions of jobs. Fast forward eight years, when there was talk of Iacocca for president. But former Gov. Jim Blanchard, who had contemplated writing a book about Iacocca, didn't see it.

"He was not cut out to run for elected office. He was flattered by all the attention but I think he knew he was not cut out. I used to say look, if he really runs, I'll help him but I can't imagine him shaking hands and making small talk in the diner in New Hampshire, I don't see it," he said.

But Iacocca was popular.

"I remember him bringing in movie stars like Frank Sinatra and a number of other people for a new car launch," McElroy said.

But never seeking the limelight.

"He was in many was a very private person. He never recovered from the loss of his wife, Mary, who was a cute little Irish Catholic woman, who adored Lee and did everything she could to make for a good family," Blanchard said.

Iacocca will be buried next to Mary at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy next week.