John Riccardo, who changed the course of Chrysler Corp. in the late 1970s by hiring Lee Iacocca to succeed him and requesting the government loan guarantees that helped save the automaker, died on Feb. 13. He was 91.
Known as "the flamethrower" for his sometimes brusque approach to problems, Riccardo rose through Chrysler's ranks and became chairman and chief executive officer in 1975.
Crisis defined his tenure, which coincided with an economic recession and the U.S. car industry's worst slump since World War II. In 1974, with new-car sales plummeting, Chrysler cut prices and closed most plants for a month. When Riccardo retired in 1979, the Detroit-based company was on the brink of bankruptcy.
In the intervening years, Riccardo pursued two paths that would define Chrysler for decades.
First, he lured Iacocca to Chrysler in October 1978, following Iacocca's ouster as president of Ford Motor Co. Iacocca became Chrysler's president with the understanding that Riccardo would step down as chairman and CEO and turn over those titles to him at the end of 1979.
"It was sad in a way," Iacocca wrote in his bestselling 1984 autobiography, "because he hadn't even been pushed by Chrysler's board of directors to approach me. He did it on his own. He obviously realized that the company was in deep trouble and that he wasn't going to be able to nurse it back to health."
Second, Riccardo shuttled back and forth to Washington to press Chrysler's request for government assistance, which he said was essential for the company's survival. When he became convinced that Congress would be more receptive to a new-look Chrysler, he stepped down earlier than planned.
"I told John that Congress and the country weren't going to act until we'd staged a morality play," Wendell Larsen, then Chrysler's vice president for public affairs, later recalled, "and I told him how he'd been cast: John Riccardo takes on himself all the sins of commission and omission, we drive him into the woods, and the company is pure again."