A recent quote from Lee Iacocca caught me by surprise.
“Chrysler has a better chance of survival than does General Motors, which is just too big,” says the former Chrysler chief.
This after John McCain had voiced his own opinion: “If anybody believes that Chrysler is going to survive, I'd like to meet them.”
Chrysler teaming up with Fiat stoked my memories. Thirty years ago, I was a young general manager of what became a Chrysler-Fiat dealership.
Around that time, Chrysler had serious production constraints on the hot-selling Horizon/Omni models that were built in Belvedere IL.
Our Chrysler store ownership decided a Fiat Strada looked a lot like a Horizon. So we took on the Fiat franchise.
The Strada was a 4-cyl, front-wheel drive, 4-door car. The Fiat lineup also included the Spider 2000 cc convertible, the X1/9 Targa mid-engine sports car, and the Brava sedan.
I thought it would be a good idea for me to drive a Fiat to show employees and customers the dealership had confidence in those cars. So I took a snazzy looking metallic blue Spider as a demo.
What a blast to drive. Unfortunately, I couldn't count on it to start. This was during the dead of summer, not during the extreme winter of the upper Midwest. The car was a mystery. The shop tried everything, yet the car just couldn't be counted on to start.
I was often stranded and had to hitchhike back to the dealership to wait for the “hook” to appear with my recalcitrant Spider. So I took an X 1/9 to drive. That was a squeeze, given my 6-ft. 3-in. length.
The car handled like a go-cart and was also a thrill to drive. One day after a visit to a friend's house, I got in the little X 1/9 and turned the key. Nothing! I thought I could roll it down the driveway and engage the clutch to start it. I had used similar methods to start the Spider when necessary.
The cars were light enough to push on level ground and I could gain some speed, hop in, pop the clutch and go. This time I rolled backwards and engaged the clutch. The car lurched, but did not start. I noticed a puddle of fluid under the car, along with associated metal parts.
The little X 1/9 had split the transaxle case and deposited its fluid and bearings in my friend's driveway. Fortunately, I could call for help. I went back to the dealership and took a Chrysler Cordoba for a demo.
We experienced problems with every Fiat we sold. My faith in the brand was shaken. Its quality issues back then led to its departure from the U.S. market.
We are now told that Fiat, with improved quality, will be the savior of Chrysler. It is true they have been a recent success story in Europe in recent years. It will be interesting what they can do here on their second go-around.
Chrysler has been led over the years by Italian surname executives, with mixed results. There was John Riccardo, a finance guy, who once said, “Chrysler will always be a boom-or-bust company.”
His main accomplishment was bringing Iacocca to Chrysler. Iacocca needs no recounting of his deeds, as he is an American icon.
Robert Nardelli, ex-GE executive/ex-Home Depot CEO, was brought in to try to straighten out Chrysler after Cerberus Capital Management bought the company following the infamous DaimlerChrysler debacle.
We now have Fiat Chairman Sergio Marchione running things.
For the sake of Chrysler, its employees, dealers and American taxpayers, let's hope Marchione is from the Iacocca mold.
It is unimaginable under any circumstances that Iacocca would have arbitrarily terminated dealers, voluntarily giving up “shelf space” in the marketplace to competitors.
Let's hope the standard of quality for Fiat has moved forward by light years, and that Iacocca is correct in his assessment of Chrysler's future.
David Ruggles' career includes every phase of auto retailing. That includes training and consulting in the U.S. and Japan. He is at [email protected].