TO BORROW a phrase from the advertisements for his Dodge trucks, Lee Iacocca is ram-tough. And the biggest noise in this autobiography is the "splat" of his horns, butting Henry Ford II into the next pasture. Ford fired Iacocca in 1978, and Iacocca plainly has a wonderful time in these pages depicting his former boss as a heavy-drinking, jet-setting playboy who doesn't know his axle from a hole in the hood. Iacocca says that Ford had paranoid fears about being muscled out of the family business by his tough, Italian- American president, and from 1975 on ran a program of spying and harassment that made life hell at Ford World Headquarters (aptly named the Glass House), before finally getting up the nerve to swing the axe.
That alone will justly guarantee the book's notoriety. Fear and loathing in the executive dining room over "anything you wanted from oysters Rockefeller to roast pheasant" are the ingredients of best-selling novels, and when one of the chief characters is familiar in everyone's living room, thanks to appearing as himself in TV commercials, it adds to the piquancy.
But the Ford fireworks should not detract from the rest of the book, which is strong, illuminating, and a rousing read.
And also something of a tease. For, like any autobiography, including the great ones, it's a bit of an act. It presents a persona that the author wants us to believe -- and perhaps believes -- is himself unveiled. But is it?
The Lee Iacocca who emerges here, with the help of William Novak, is crisp, straight- talking, hard-headed, and a man free with the use of cuss words, especially an eight letter one whose first syllable is "bull," of which he swears he is giving you none. It is in this skin that he relates his rise from the streets of Allentown, Pennsylvania, to the top of the nation's biggest industry. In 1946, aged 22 and a Lehigh University graduate, he went to work as a student engineer with Ford, but quickly switched into sales, where his brains and drive could find more action. His mentor was a blunt but kindly regional manager named Charlie Beacham. When Iacocca came in 13th in sales in a 13-zone district, Beacham drawled: "Don't let that get you down. . . . Just don't be last two months in a row."
Iacocca didn't. He got better and better at the job, went to Dearborn with Beacham when the latter became head of car and truck sales for the Ford Division, and eventually became manager of the whole division himself. In that role, he developed the wildly successful Mustang for 1964. He climbed another rung and created the Lincoln-Mercury Cougar. In 1970 he became company president, and then proceeded to earn Henry Ford some $3.5 billion dollars, much of which he says Henry squandered before firing him with the lame excuse: "Sometimes you just don't like somebody."
The rest is familiar. Thrown brutally over the side, the shocked and humiliated Iacocca was fished out, but only to board a sinking ship. He moved over to Chrysler, the floundering cripple of a sick industry, apparently wallowing into bankruptcy. In the ensuing six years, he reshaped the management team, brought out better models, talked the government into a billion-dollar loan guarantee, talked the UAW, the suppliers and the banks into concessions, and talked the public into buying enough Chrysler products to turn the situation around, and save the day.
THE STORY is especially fascinating to those who know their automotive history, because so much of it stirs echoes from the past. If Henry Ford II was in fact a capricious tyrant, so was his celebrated grandpa. When Iacocca grouses that the federal government exacted not a pound, but a ton of flesh for its loan guarantee, that's exactly what a consortium of banks did when it dug GM out of a hole in 1910. If Chrysler was literally unsure from week to week that it could meet its payroll (of $250 million), so was the whole industry during a 1920 postwar slump. Thanks to high fixed costs, long turnover times and caprices of public taste, the game was always inherently risky. And it was dominated, in Iacocca's words, by "rugged individualists -- arrogant, high-powered, and rich." After 1924 GM broke that pattern, when Alfred Sloan brilliantly made it king of the hill, but he did so through a rule-by-committee system that erased individuality in management. Iacocca would not have fitted there any more than at the absolute monarchy in Dearborn. Chrysler was the perfect compromise for him.
But to return to the issue of the "real" Iacocca, he is not easy to typecast. On one hand, the book is full of ideas, presented so crisply that it's easy to overook their familiarity. He tells us that hard work creates success, that patriotism and the family are fine things, and that Detroit leadership really wasn't at fault for the industry's recent miseries. It was the Arabs and their high-priced oil, the unfair trade advantages of the Japanese, the fat contracts for the unions, the interest-rate squeeze, the general recession. Whatever their quotient of truth, these are the excuses we've heard before.
And yet on the other hand, Iacocca is different. He likes Jimmy Carter, Walter Reuther and seat belts. He praises the unselfishness of Japanese as opposed to American business executives (though he's honest about his enjoyment of his own outsized perks and pay.) He's impatient with fellow businessmen for whom "free enterprise" is an ideological straitjacket. His idea for revitalizing the economy is a "Marshall Plan for America" under which the government gives tax credits, research funds, antitrust relief, import restraints and other breaks to "sunset" industries. He wants a big gasoline tax and some cuts in defense as well as social spending. He doesn't wince at profit sharing or even, in a pinch, price controls. And he would tax to death corporate mergers that create paper millions but don't add a thing to productivity. (He may have forgotten Charlie Beacham's diagnosis-plus-advice: "Make money. Screw everything else. This is the profit-making system.")
Iacocca offers these prescriptions while noting that some people have urged him to run for president, but that it's not really for him. "I'm too outspoken," he says, "to be a good politician." Then why is he giving us all this Advice From the Man Who Knows How to Meet a Payroll? He asks the question of himself, and says it's only to set the record straight. But is that disclaimer, like his insistence that he only appears in his ads to "put his name and reputation on the line," merely an eight-letter word whose irst syllable is "bull?"
Whether it is or not, there's a refreshing pungency in this non-platitudinous memoir of life at the top of a tough and turbulent industry. Iacocca is fiercely proud of his Italian parents, and ends the book with a pitch for donations to the foundation he is chairing to raise money to renovate the Statue of Liberty. He ought to get a favorable response. He and she have both earned it.