December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

This has not been a vintage year for me, for Chrysler, for the industry or for the country. And it may get worse before it gets better. But it certainly has been exciting!” Such an ambivalent assessment could come from no other businessman than Lido (better known as Lee) Iacocca. As chairman and chief executive officer of Chrysler, he has spent 1979 trying to save the nation’s third largest automaker (and 10th largest corporation) from extinction.

The Senate and House banking committees have approved bailout bills of $1.25 to $1.5 billion in federal loan guarantees, provided that, among other things, Chrysler raises roughly equivalent amounts on the outside. But company worries are far from over. Agreement on a bill by the full House and Senate is in doubt—especially since Chrysler joined the United Auto Workers in rejecting a three-year wage freeze demanded by the Senate, Iacocca, however, did set his own example. He took a $359,999 pay cut by agreeing to a $1-a-year salary through 1981.

In his efforts to rescue Chrysler, Iacocca pleaded his case before congressional committees and is pitching Chryslers on TV (where his own family is his severest critic). “You look old and fat,” daughter Lia, 15, says with affection. “You’re much neater in real life, Dad.” The strain on Iacocca has been immense. During one trip to Washington his blood pressure shot up alarmingly, and Iacocca, 55, was treated at a hospital. He is also suffering from a touch of vertigo. “I was burning myself out,” he concedes. “My batteries are way down.”

Iacocca has been close to the auto business since childhood. The son of Italian immigrants (his father started one of this country’s first rent-a-car agencies), Lee says, “I decided to go to Ford when I was about 13.” After earning a master’s in engineering at Princeton (on scholarship), he joined Ford in 1946 and was spotted by president-to-be Robert McNamara. Iacocca made his mark by championing the phenomenally successful Mustang in 1964, and Henry Ford II made him president six years later, Iacocca was earning $978,000 in salary and bonuses when Ford abruptly fired him in 1978. Less than four months later Iacocca went over to Chrysler—a job he now says he would not have taken if he had known what was coming: “I would rather have retired.”

So why is he still in there slugging? “Maybe,” speculates friend Burns Cody, “he wants to replace Henry Ford as spokesman for the industry.” Chrysler Executive VP Gerald Greenwald, the first high official Iacocca wooed away from Ford, says, “Lee can be tough to extremes when it comes to work, but with family and friends he’s a softie.”

Iacocca cites his wife of 23 years, Mary Kate, and their daughters Kathi, 20, and Lia as his “greatest achievements.” He insists on not being disturbed on their weekends together at home, a red brick colonial estate with pool, paddle and tennis courts and five cars (two Chryslers, two Dodges and a Ford Model A) in Bloomfield Hills. The Iacoccas seldom go out, preferring instead to listen to jazz, play poker or screen first-run movies in “Lido’s Lounge,” the cozy rec room. Lee’s favorite dish is Mary’s homemade ravioli. “You can’t afford to be too fancy,” he cracks, “when the breadwinner only makes a dollar a year.” (He is, of course, a multimillionaire.)

What most irks Iacocca is criticism that federal loan guarantees are somehow un-American. “When they say ‘free enterprise’ to me,” he snaps, “I want to throw up. Who’s a better free enterpriser? Me, who’s trying to save the corporation? Or those who say let it go under in the name of free enterprise?”

Without help Chrysler could face bankruptcy by mid-February—”Let’s say St. Valentine’s Day,” he notes wryly. “This is not a crusade and I am not a martyr. Everybody says I don’t stand a chance in a million. But we are going to surprise them all!”

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