Lido Lives! Iacocca Smiles for the Camera Again

July 6, 2005
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At 81, he's not exactly your typical TV pretty face. But Chrysler is nonetheless betting that Lee Iacocca can still sell cars. The legendary auto exec will become the spokesman for Chrysler's Employee Pricing Plus campaign. Barring a last-minute hitch in the legal paper-pushing, it would be yet another stunning turn to the long-running relationship between Iacocca and America's number three car company.

For those who've been around as long as TCC's publisher, you'll recall that Iacocca signed on just in time to pull the automaker's fat out of the fire, in January 1981 pulling off the seeming impossible -- a federal bail-out bill that kept Chrysler in business. By the mid-1980s, Iacocca was one of the best-known business execs in the country. Make that the world. I recall a throng of screaming fans descending on him at Tokyo's Narita Airport, hoping to get the gregarious executive to sign a copy of his new book. Never mind it wasn't available in Japanese. As the '80s dragged on, and Iacocca neared the normal retirement age of 65, he showed no sign of leaving. Corporate wags suggested that his name really stood for: I Am Chairman Of Chrysler Corporation Always. But nudged by the board, Iacocca eventually handed the reigns over to Bob Eaton in December 1992, a move he quickly came to regret. In April 1994, Lido joined billionaire Kirk Kerkorian in an abortive, hostile takeover bid. It was an ultimately embarrassing move, and among other things, resulted in Eaton's decision not to put Iacocca's name on Chrysler's new headquarters building in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

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Uninterested in retirement, Iacocca tried marketing Italian olive oil, even electric bikes. But he couldn't quite come to grips with rejection. A few years ago, Iacocca was back in the news, offering his services to Juergen Schrempp, the CEO of what was now DaimlerChrysler AG. Schrempp politely demured, but when the automaker began thinking about its new marketing campaign, Iacocca's name quickly came back up. A few old-time insiders weren't pleased, we're told. They're still smarting over the Kerkorian affair. But most folks, including new Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche, thought it a brilliant move. To clinch the deal, Chrysler agreed to donate an undisclosed sum to diabetes research. (Iacocca's first wife, Mary, died of the disease.)

The former CEO taped his spots on Tuesday and will soon hit the air accompanied by celeb pitchman such as Seinfeld's Jason Alexander. The tone will be distinctly humorous, we're told. In fact, Alexander is set to steal one of Iacocca's trademark lines: "If you can find a better car, buy it." Whether young buyers will heed the siren call of this old CEO remains to be seen. But it's starting to seem that Iacocca really was and will be Chrysler -- Always

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