From the first time I saw a Ford Mustang I knew I found my car. I remember seeing it in my favorite movie scenes in “Bullet,” “Diamonds are Forever,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” where I felt my first irrational urgency to someday get one. The emotional attachments for me were the sleek lines, the vibrant colors, and the convertible tops, but at my childhood home the link was something much bigger!
At Elmer Steier’s (my father) house it was about the American innovation behind it, led by Mr. Lee Iacocca, that made the car a dinner table topic at the Steier household. It was Mr. Iacocca who personally moved inside the Ford plant to create the iconic example of rapid engineering speed as a symbol of an American comeback at a time we needed to make a statement that inspired our conversations about that special car. Growing up as a son of an active labor union leader and former bricklayer who pushed BUY AMERICAN at an almost religious level like our Catholic roots, Mr. Iacocca was the first executive I remember being mentioned at the dinner table!
At this time, I remember that foreign-made cars were not allowed to be parked in our driveway no matter who was the driver, which tells you how much my Dad believed in American protectionism versus a global economy that we live in today.
After the first recession during the Carter administration, I remember the impact it had on our blue-collar neighborhood. My father became deeply concerned with the rise of foreign car companies coupled with the arrogance of the U.S. auto industry making inferior products and he often predicted a future downfall for the massive industry. Even as an active union organizer, he respected great leadership, knew organizations needed excellent management, and knew that sacred balance was needed between all vested parties to make anything a huge success!
Besides creating the famed Mustang, Mr. Iacocca turned around the entire Ford Motor Company and then also the Chrysler Company years later, which are staple reminders that we invented an auto industry that still thrives today, drives our Louisville economy, and a lot of our Kentucky regions are still dependent on the success of it.
At one time, I collected old Mustang rag tops before they were traded in for four crazy kids. I once ignorantly drove a new Mustang Cobra out of a dealership floor in 1995 as a moment of irrational immediate gratification inheriting a car payment that required two jobs. Equally important, I still have the Mustang bought on my 40th birthday as a gift that has now been successfully passed onto to my daughter who gets the history of this special car!
This being our July 4th holiday season, we should all take a moment and have a toast to Lee because it is a great example of a son of first-generation immigrant parents with Italian roots making a big splash in our American life in a tangible way. We can all still be touched by it as we sit at red lights and just watch, even though Mr. Iacocca passed away yesterday at age 94.
As we watch today with dismay what is happening along the Texas border that impacts all of us deeply regardless what side of the aisle you sit on, we know we must find a better solution than the one we have now.
In all of Lee Iacocca’s interviews, he talked about how much he loved the open arms of America that were provided to his parents at a time they had no place to turn and who later operated hot dog stands in Pennsylvania. He talked and rattled off other immigrant sons and daughters making a difference at the peak of his power because he knew what they all contributed to the United States that could never happen somewhere else.
After his amazing career and how his parents were embraced, Mr. Iacocca took his personal resources and leadership skills to restore the Statue of Liberty that was decaying to show the entire world that we are a collection of hard-working people with links to pioneering immigrants and anything is possible, only in AMERICA!