On this day in 1978, Ford Motor Company chairman Henry Ford II fires Lee Iacocca as Ford’s president, ending years of tension between the two men.
Born to an immigrant family in Pennsylvania in 1924, Iacocca was hired by Ford as an engineer in 1946 but soon switched to sales, at which he clearly excelled. By 1960, Iaccoca had become a vice president and general manager of the Ford division, the company’s largest marketing arm. He successfully championed the design and development of the sporty, affordable Ford Mustang, an achievement that landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines in the same week in 1964.
In December 1970, Henry Ford II named Iacocca president of Ford, but his brash, unorthodox style soon brought him into conflict with his boss. According to Douglas Brinkley’s history of Ford “Wheels for the World,” Henry authorized $1.5 million in company funds for an investigation of Iacocca’s business and private life in 1975. Suffering from a heart condition and aware that the time for his retirement was approaching, Ford made it clear that he eventually wanted to turn the company over to his son Edsel, then just 28. In early 1978, Iacocca was told he would report to another Ford executive, Philip Caldwell, who was named deputy chief executive officer. In his increasingly public struggle with Ford, Iacocca made an attempt to find support among the company’s board of directors, giving Ford the excuse he needed to fire him. As Iacocca later wrote in his bestselling autobiography, Ford called Iacocca into his office shortly before 3 pm on July 13, 1978 and let him go, telling him “Sometimes you just don’t like somebody.”
News of the firing shocked the industry, but it turned into a boon for Iacocca. The following year, he was hired as president of the Chrysler Corporation, which at the time was facing bankruptcy. Iacocca went to the federal government for aid, banking on his belief that the government would not let Chrysler fail for fear of weakening an already slumping economy. The gamble paid off, with Congress agreeing to bail out Chrysler to the tune of $1.5 billion. Iacocca streamlined the company’s operations, focused on producing more fuel-efficient cars and pursued an aggressive marketing strategy based on his own powerful personality. After showing a small profit in 1981, Chrysler posted record profits of more than $2.4 billion in 1984. By then a national celebrity, Iacocca retired as chief executive of Chrysler in 1992.