From the Mustang to the Jeep Grand Cherokee—with the Pinto, K-cars, and the minivan in between—Lee Iacocca left a mark on the American auto industry like few others. The former Ford and Chrysler chief, who became the quintessential tough-talking celebrity CEO after engineering a remarkable turnaround at the latter company in the 1980s, has died at his home in Bel Air, Calif., the Detroit Free Press reports. He was 94. Born to Italian immigrants in Allentown, Pa., in 1924, Iacocca studied engineering after he graduated high school in 1942 and was rejected by the Army Air Force because of a previous bout of rheumatic fever. He became a Ford engineering trainee but soon switched to marketing and started rising through the ranks after introducing the wildly successful "56 for 56" financing plan in which customers could buy a 1956 Ford for 20% down and payments of $56 a month for three years, the AP reports.
Iacocca—described by the Free Press as "midwife to the minivan"—was fired by Ford in 1978 after personality clashes with Henry Ford II and problems with the Pinto. He joined Chrysler months afterward and helped the struggling company survive with the assistance of government-guaranteed loans—which he paid off seven years ahead of schedule with a billboard-sized check at a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1983, the Wall Street Journal reports. During his years of celebrity in the '80s and early '90s, he was a firm defender of the US auto industry. "I, for one, am fed up hearing from the Japanese, and I might say some Americans, too, that all our problems in this industry, all of our problems, are our own damn fault. We do not have idiots running General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler or our suppliers, and our workers are not lazy and stupid," he told the Detroit Economic Club in 1992. He retired as chairman at the end of that year. (Read more auto industry stories.)