Two influential figures from the 1980s automotive world died a week apart in late June and early July. Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca was the better-known figure in automotive circles, but H. Ross Perot left his mark on Detroit as well.
Both men challenged the status quo of an auto industry undergoing massive change. Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, and Mitsubishi were expanding rapidly, challenging a market that had been dominated by Detroit’s Big Three.
Iacocca was a product of the glory days that were disappearing. As the executive in charge of the Ford Mustang in 1964, he shepherded an automotive unicorn – a vehicle so radically good and different that it established a whole new class. General Motors would follow with the Chevy Camaro, and Dodge would enter the fray with the Charger, but the Mustang ruled the pony car market.
Iacocca is better remembered for his career’s second act – the one that came after Henry Ford II fired him in 1978 for personality conflicts. As president and CEO of Chrysler, Iacocca lobbied Congress for a 1979 bailout, using loan guarantees to restructure debt and convince creditors, suppliers, workers, and executives to take pay cuts (taking a $1-a-year salary himself).
As the automaker recovered, Iacocca bought American Motors from Renault, bringing Jeep into the Chrysler family. And, he launched another unicorn – the 1983 minivan created a market Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) still dominates.
During his tenure, Iacocca showed how an American car company could react to a changing global market. The company’s tenure after his departure wasn’t as successful – merging with Daimler, being sold to a private equity company, seeking a second federal bailout, and being sold to Fiat for nothing but the promise of keeping jobs in the U.S.
Ross Perot’s impact on Detroit was more adversarial. In 1984, he sold his computer company Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) to GM for $2.6 billion, becoming GM’s largest shareholder as the company sought to reinvent itself in the face of competition from Japan. Like Iacocca with Henry Ford II, Perot butted heads with then GM-CEO Roger Smith. GM wanted EDS’ expertise in managing the automaker’s global operations, and Perot thought he was getting a financial windfall and the ability to continue to steer the company he founded. But control issues led to public bickering and eventually lawsuits.
Frustrated by GM’s bureaucratic structure and autocratic chief executive, Perot once declared, “We’ve got to nuke the GM system.” Eventually, GM bought Perot’s shares, allowing him to create a new computer company and use his wealth for two failed independent presidential campaigns. Though his attempts at politics were the fodder for late-night comedians, history has been kinder to his criticism of GM’s 1980s management. The company’s slow-moving systems, coupled with an executive core that didn’t take criticism well, survived several more decades, and were painfully clear during the automaker’s 2009 bankruptcy, federal bailout, and restructuring.