Former Chrysler CEO John Riccardo dies at 91 – Detroit Free Press
John Riccardo, the 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 in Ann Arbor. The Birmingham resident was 91.
He died after attending a University of Michigan basketball game.
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-Frazer Corp. Lynn Townsend recruited Riccardo to Chrysler in 1959. Riccardo quickly moved up to head various divisions.
Riccardo became Chrysler president in 1970, and 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 Riccardo stepped down in 1979, at age 55, after the Carter administration rejected his request for aid. Iacocca later called 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 decisions 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. 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.
“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.
Mr. Riccardo is survived by his wife, Thelma, sons Terry, Peter and the Rev. Father John Riccardo; daughters Lynn Duffy and Mary Kay Billington; 11 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
Visitation is scheduled for 3-8 p.m. Thursday at Lynch and Sons Funeral Home, 1368 N. Crooks Rd, Clawson. A funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Holy Name Parish, Birmingham.
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