John Riccardo, the former Chrysler chairman at the time of the company’s 1979 brush with bankruptcy and the person who lured Lee Iacocca away from Ford, died Saturday. He was 91.

He died after attending a University of Michigan basketball game in Ann Arbor.

Riccardo was born on July 2, 1924 in Little Falls, N.Y., the son of an Italian immigrant who built bicycles.

He was World War II veteran who helped reconstruct Burma Road the U.S. needed to supply allies in Asia. He earned undergraduate degrees in economics from the University of Michigan He was married for 66 years to his wife, Thelma.

Early in his auto industry career Riccardo worked with the Kaiser Frazier Corp. Lynn Townsend who led American Motors Co. then Chrysler, recruited Riccardo to Chrysler in 1959, quickly moving up to head various divisions.

He became Chrysler president in 1970, an chairman in 1975 when Mr. Townsend left. During his leadership Riccardo confronted numerous financial challenges as the Arab oil embargo sparked demand for smaller cars, which caught Chrysler off-guard, resulting in a series of cost-cutting moves which earned him the nickname “The Flamethrower.”

Riccardo recruited Ford executive Lee Iacocca to come to Chrysler as president in late 1978. Iacocca then succeeded Riccardo when he stepped down in 1979, at age 55, after the Carter administration rejected his request for aid.  Iacocca later call Riccardo’s decision a heroic act.

“He blew himself out of the water to bring Chrysler back to life,” Iacocca wrote of Riccardo in his 1984 biography, Iacocca. “And that is the test of a real hero.”

One of Riccardo’s decision that did work out after he left was approving a substantial investment on front wheel drive “K cars” led by Harold Sperlich. The program cost nearly half again as much as a prior plan to use the old rear wheel drive setup as a basis for the compacts.

To raise cash, Riccardo sold Chrysler’s Australian operations to Mitsubishi, the Venezuela unit to General Motors, and Brazilian and Argentinean divisions to Volkswagen, the selling SIMCA and Rootes Group to Peugeot. All the time, he blamed the government for Chrysler’s problems and tried to get emissions and safety laws rolled back.

He was reluctant to share much with journalists and other outsiders in contrast to his successor’s aggressive media style.

“Brevity is the most important thing for me at this time,” Riccardo said in response to questions at a press conference in January 1970 to introduce Chrysler’s new management team.

Contact Greg Gardner: (313) 222-8762 or Follow him on Twitter @GregGardner12.