Mustangs, minivans, SUV's and Wilson Pickett

Margaret R. McDowell | Arbor Outlook
Margaret R. McDowell

"I bought you a brand new Mustang ... 'bout 1965 ..." — from "Mustang Sally," as performed by Wilson Pickett

The Mark Zuckerberg of our generation has died.

Close your eyes for a moment and picture a group of wild horses, manes flowing in the wind, galloping through an open range. Lee Iacocca didn't create this ad; an agency did. But he invented the car that it promoted.

Another famous commercial showed a Mustang turning an unattractive, drab-looking fellow into a dashing man about town. The tag line? "Something has happened to Henry … A Mustang has happened to Henry."

After transitioning from engineering to marketing at Ford, Iacocca developed a campaign called "56 for 56." It allowed car buyers to purchase a new Ford in 1956 with a down payment and $56 monthly payments for three years. It was an immense success.

But Iacocca made his name at Ford with the Mustang, which was unveiled at the New York World's Fair in 1964. The excitement surrounding the car was unprecedented. It was a sporty "second car" for American families, and promoted as a vehicle that looked great both at the country club as well as at church. The price was around $2,400 and it sold a million units in 18 months.

Iacocca experienced plenty of failures, too. His designers at Ford also produced the Pinto, an engineering disaster. Numerous gas tank explosions in rear-end collisions caused many consumer injuries and deaths and resulted in a mountain of legal problems for the company.

But resiliency defined him and his career. After Henry Ford II tired of him as president and fired him, he assumed the helm at Chrysler, which was failing and drowning in debt. Iacocca appeared in television commercials, asking the public to trust the product Chrysler was producing. "If you can find a better car, buy it," he said.

His straight talk resonated. He engineered a government loan to save Chrysler, paid it back seven years early, reversed the company’s fortunes and invented the minivan. He is also credited with inventing the first SUV.

He was the son of immigrants, raised in modest circumstances in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Like so many first- and second-generation Americans, he knew from early childhood that his goal was to make a lot of money, not to pursue career satisfaction or "work-life" balance.

Throughout his career, he displayed the ability to adapt to changing market conditions. When he joined Ford, it was "sell big cars to make big profits." Later he would lead the transition at Chrysler to more fuel-efficient vehicles that could compete with gas-sipping Japanese imports.

Iacocca’s is a classic American success story. People in my generation remember owning or riding in a Mustang the same way that millennials reflect on purchasing their first iPhone.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 —, a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.