Many Villagers might not know it, but automotive guru Lee Iacocca, who died this past Tuesday at age 94, once made quite a splash in The Villages.
The man largely responsible for an iconic sports car and later saving a car manufacturer on the verge of collapse came to Florida’s Friendliest Hometown more than 19 years ago to hawk a different product – an electric bicycle.
It was April 2000 when the legendary Iacocca came to pitch the E-Bike, what was then his latest venture. The man who had played an integral role in the development of the Ford Mustang, helped develop the minivan and guided the Chrysler Corporation through difficult times was heavily involved with a new product in 2000. And he was visiting The Villages in conjunction with the opening of a new retail operation that would feature his E-Bike and other electric-powered vehicles built by Iacocca’s relatively new company, EV Global Motors Co.
The company had identified the growing retirement community as an excellent place to showcase and test its new products, two-wheel vehicles that mostly would be distributed through automobile dealerships. At the time, plans also called for three- and four-wheel vehicles to eventually be released. And Founder Harold Schwartz and Villages architect H. Gary Morse were quite happy to have him visit the community.
In a press conference prior to Iacocca’s arrival in The Villages, the new E-Bike was billed as a clean, fun electrical product that could be charged at wall outlets and featured a top speed of 15 mph and a range of 20 miles. Iacocca was scheduled to arrive a few days later and was going to ride one of his E-Bikes in a parade at Spanish Springs Town Square. And in honor of the automobile industry legend, the parade was to include a 1965 Ford Mustang and a 1986 Chrysler Minivan.
The day of the parade finally arrived and sure enough, there was Iacocca himself, ever the salesman, riding into Spanish Springs on an E-Bike. It was a typical Villages parade and celebration – loud Dixieland music, plenty of drinks and unabashed promotion and commercialism. And not surprisingly, E-Bikes were the featured guests at the party.
As part of the event, Iacocca randomly pulled the names of 23 E-Bike winners, whom he labeled as “Iacocca Ambassadors.” They all were Villages residents who could hardly wait to enjoy their new electric toys. And for those who didn’t win one of the special bikes, close to 100 others were available for sale on town square.
The special event also featured free test rides on the bikes, which were selling for $1,000 apiece. Villagers said they appreciated being able to pedal the bikes or ride them while they were being propelled by battery-powered motors.
Iacocca called The Villages the perfect community to market his products.
“If you can’t sell E-Bikes in a place like this, you can’t sell E-Bikes anywhere,” Iacocca was quoted as saying.
Iacocca also told the partying Villagers that he believed electric-powered vehicles would prove to provide a good alternative way to travel, especially for short or low-speed trips like those taken in the soon-to-be mega-retirement community. And he predicted that more two-, three- and four-wheel electric vehicles would soon be a staple in retirement communities and on college campuses across the country.