Watching Lee Iacocca is never dull. Even in his television ads for Chrysler, he projects controlled force -- appealing but tough, almost menacing. A novice with 10 cords of firewood to split might see a chain saw the same way: effective and dangerous.
This biography is never dull, either, and that's quite a trick for a book that delves so deeply into the history and operations of one of America's major industries. It is well-constructed, opening dramatically on the day that its subject, then president of the Ford Motor Company, was fired by Henry Ford II, before turning back to Lido Anthony Iacocca's beginnings as the son of a hard-driving immigrant from Italy's Campania province.
Marked early for success, Iacocca was president of the class of '42 at Allentown (Pa.) High School and an honors student despite a debilitating bout with rheumatic fever. He studied engineering at Lehigh and there declared his intention of becoming vice president of Ford before he was 35. His aim was close: he did it at 36.
The author of "Iacocca," David Abodaher, is a supervisor in the advertising agency that Iacocca brought to Chrysler, away from the Ford account that it had handled for 34 years. (Abodaher is also the author of 12 books for young adults, and has not been able to divest himself of a style aimed at younger readers.) One suspects that Abodaher knows where a lot of bodies are buried; indeed, there's enough titillating detail about ruthless corporate politics here to furnish motivation for a good number of mystery novels.
Threading his way through the thickets of automotive and allied industrial relationships, Abodaher clearly delights in the intricacies of his tale. The bones and sinews of the business deals are always fleshed out with colorful accounts of the personalities involved and their conflicts, strengths and weaknesses.
Abodaher notes, for example, the deciding role played by Ford women in preserving the family empire: Clara Ford's part in ending the deadly labor strife of the late '30s with a drastic threat to leave her husband, the original Henry, if he didn't put a stop to it; or the board room maneuverings of Henry II's mother Eleanor to ensure that control remained in the family.
The development of Lee Iacocca's career and the nature of his personality are tightly woven by the author into the history of Ford Motor Company and, to a lesser extent, that of Chrysler. Iacocca is clearly as tough as he appears, though the book could hardly be regarded as critical. A token effort is made to introduce the views of nonadmirers, but by and large, one might easily get the impression that Iacocca has been singlehandedly responsible for all increased sales of anything at either company by triumphing over pig-headed opposition.
There is little doubt that oversimplification or selective presentation of information have harmed the usefulness of this book. For instance, in describing changes to the Ford GT40 race car after the 1966 racing season, Abodaher says Iacocca "ordered the horsepower increased . . . he also had the new versions equipped with cast-iron cylinder heads . . . the cars were also given larger brakes to compensate for their increased speeds."
Uh, well, not exactly because of the increased speeds. Mark Donahue, who drove for the Ford factory team in '66 and '67, spent several pages in his autobiography on the multiple and memorable failures of the GT40 brakes in 1966. He rather vividly recalled the shrapnel sound of disintegrating brake rotors as they pierced the bodywork at 180 mph on the high banks of Daytona.
One might also wonder if the individual technical details of an evolving race-car design, at that time in the hands of three different Ford contractors (never mentioned by Abodaher), were so directly specified by a man whose responsibilities then included "overall supervision of planning, production, and marketing of all vehicles offered by Lincoln-Mercury and Ford divisions" as well as of their advertising agencies.
It's not that any single such suspect account or flawed conclusion is of much importance, but one keeps stumbling over similar items as the book goes on and, in the end, its credibility is harmed.
Other problems arise from Abodaher's main occupation in advertising. At times, he seems to believe that no one in the United States has anything more to do than hang in breathless suspense waiting for announcements of new automotive product lines.
"Under Iacocca's watchful eye the new Lincoln emerged, to be positioned in advertising as a refined luxury car of tasteful simplicity with a rich interior, driver and passenger comfort conveniences that made riding in it as restful as sitting in one's living room . . . The moneyed aficionados who demanded the new and prestigious in their motor cars reacted as Iacocca had expected." This is the stuff of which advertising brochures, not biographies, are made.
In researching this book, Abodaher was allowed by Iacocca to interview his wife, mother and sister; but he specifies in his acknowledgments that Iacocca himself did not directly supply any material. According to a recent report in the automotive trade press, Bantam Books has successfully negotiated the rights to Iacocca's life story, to be ghosted by William Novak. It will be interesting to see where these two accounts differ and agree.