After saving Chrysler, Lee Iacocca became an unlikely champion of electric bikes and scooters

Lee Iacocca, savior of Chrysler, 1924-2019.
Lee Iacocca, savior of Chrysler, 1924-2019.
Image: AP Photo
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American car icon Lee Iacocca died on July 2 at age 94. The brash former chairman of Chrysler, Iacocca is best known for pulling the automaker from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1980s. He helped “define the role of the imperial American executive,” in the words of Automotive News, “a natural huckster and tireless competitor with Italian roots and a penchant for cigars, vinyl car roofs and Greek-temple grilles.”

Later in life, Iacocca was also an unlikely pioneer of electric bikes and scooters.

In 1997, a few years after retiring from Chrysler, Iacocca founded EV Global Motors, a company specializing in electric vehicles. Shortly after, Iacocca teamed up with another Chrysler veteran, Ray Geddes, and his electric vehicle company Unique Mobility. He also created a “strategic alliance” with Kwang Yang Motor Co., a Taiwan-based manufacturer of electric motors known as KYMCO, to expand the market for electric scooters.

Lee Iacocca showing off a prototype EV Global bicycle in 1998.
Lee Iacocca showing off a prototype EV Global bicycle in 1998.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Sheinwald

“I am pleased to be associated with KYMCO, a company committed to developing clean, quiet electric transportation,” Iacocca said in a press release for the alliance in June 1997.

The following year, Iacocca teamed up with another auto industry veteran, former GM chairman Robert Stempel (who ran a company called Energy Conversion Devices along with Stanford Ovshinsky, the inventor of the nickel metal-hydride battery), to develop an electric bicycle. “In the new millennium, for young people it’s going to be an electric world,” Iacocca said at the launch of the partnership, according to Automotive News.

As the New York Times noted at the time, Iacocca’s interest in non-car electric vehicles was unusual for a former auto executive, and more than a bit ironic: Chrysler produced 26.6 million gas-powered cars while Iacocca served as chairman. Before Chrysler, Iacocca was president of Ford, and pushed Henry Ford II to approve the Mustang, which sold 1 million units in its first year and half on the market.

EV Global didn’t last. Iacocca’s ambitions were ahead of battery technology at the time. The bikes EV Global sold in the 1990s were heavy, slow, and expensive. The company attempted to transition to lithium batteries in the early 2000s but reportedly struggled with batteries overheating and, in rare cases, bikes catching on fire.

Today, the landscape is radically different. More than a dozen companies are jockeying to popularize shared electric bikes and scooters, including transportation giant Uber. The global e-bike market is expected to grow to 40 million units in 2019, and 120 million units over the next decade. Sales of e-bikes are set to rival sales of traditional bicycles in a handful of countries including China, Japan, and Germany.

Iacocca’s hunch about personalized electric vehicles was right, if too early. He spotted the future of mobility in the late 1990s, and in 2019 that future has arrived.