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Local News / Automotive

Saturday, 31 July, 2010 1:29 AM

Iacocca, Leno, Petty and Exner receive awards at Chrysler Legacy Gala

Photo credit: Chrysler Electronic Communications

Chrysler Group LLC CEO Sergio Marchionne (third from left) spontaneously invited Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally (second from left), and UAW President Bob King (left) on stage to help him honor retired Chrysler Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca at the inaugural Walter P. Chrysler Legacy Gala at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. Iacocca was honored for masterfully leading Chrysler through the extraordinary challenges in the early 1980s.
by Jason Rzucidlo
americajr@americajr.com

 

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, talk show host Jay Leno, former NASCAR champion Richard Petty and former Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner were honored at the first-ever Chrysler Legacy Gala on July 24. Exner Jr. accepted the award on behalf of his late father at the ceremony. It all took place at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, which opened in 1999 just footsteps from Chrysler's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. More than 570 fine guests attended the inaugural event.

"As you all know, we have found four people who embody the spirit and tenacity of Walter P. Chrysler himself and we are going to present tonight an award to each of these four gentlemen in the Walter P. Chrysler name," said Frank Fountain, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the museum. "

The Chrysler Legacy Gala served as the official kickoff to Walter P. Chrysler Museum's Legacy Campaign. Its goal is to preserve, educate and inspire the next generation of automotive enthusiasts. A total of $1 million was raised through ticket sales and sponsorships to kick start the multi-million dollar fundraising campaign.

"I was able to drive my father's showcars quite a bit," Exner said during the press conference. "GM, Ford, Studebaker and Chrysler were scramming as fast as they could after World War II to get new products out. New to the public would receptive to much more modern design having seen all of the WWII warcraft and fighting material that was really high tech at the time. They all took advantage of getting out of concept cars. My father was brought into Chrysler primarily to keep Chrysler's ball rolling while they had some catching up to do as far as design was concerned because of the lack of real modern design effort in their '46 to '49 car lines."

The Legacy Gala celebrated 85 years of Chrysler's heritage and honored four automotive and entertainment icons. The evening began with a strolling dinner provided by 2Unique of Royal Oak, Mich. WDIV-TV Local 4 anchor Devin Scillian hosted the Legacy Circle induction ceremony.

Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne introduced honoree Iacocca. Ram Truck Brand President and CEO Fred Diaz introduced honoree Leno. Walter P. Chrysler Museum Board of Directors Frank Ewasyshyn introduced honoree Petty. Dodge Car Brand President and CEO Ralph Gilles introduced honoree Exner.

"Actually, it's three-in-one, the other three have really done something," joked talk show host and car enthusiast Jay Leno. "It's like the little league where every kid gets the trophy. I'm the kid that gets the trophy. I'm a huge fan, but the others have made huge contributions. It's an honor to be in that company. I've been here before. I think this is one of the great museums. If you're a car person, Detroit is sort of Bethlehem to come here. I get annoyed when I talk to young kids that think cars started in Japan or Korea or somewhere else. This is really the birthplace. I think this museum is a wonderful contribution. I think it's nice to see something new in Detroit that honors Detroit."

Leno said that Detroit automakers are coming back in big ways: "It's all product. It's like anything else. I've got a new Challenger. It's been a fantastic car, I've had no problems with it. Everybody else probably likes the handling and that's ultimately what sells the cars. I just went through the design center and saw some amazing stuff. I think its great when people see a Chrysler 300 in Hollywood and say, 'Is that a Bentley?' No, it's a Chrysler. They go, 'Oh, wow. This is pretty nice.' That's how you sell it. A buddy of mine mistaked the new Taurus for a BMW the other day."

The talk show host donated and performed a one-hour comedy skit during the evening. There were silent and live auctions with prizes that ranged from A Day with Richard Petty to Tickets to The Tonight Show to a Private Tour of Jay Leno's Big Dog Garage.

"Now, they're building the car that people will come back to," said former NASCAR champion Richard Petty. "I think that's across the board that Detroit says, 'We've got to build better, we can build better. We've got better engineers, everything it takes to be the best there is.' I think all that's going to happen."

When asked about some of today's NASCAR drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, who's won the title for the last four years, Petty said: "Right now, they're the cream of the crop from the standpoint that they're winning races and doing what they're supposed to do. NASCAR right now is sort of like everybody else as far as the economy's concerned. The drivers are too even. It needs some variety. Jimmie seems to be good as anybody. Right now, I don't think we've got a strong personality to carry the sport. I think we're looking for what."

Funds donated to the museum's legacy campaign will be used to refresh "Boss Chrysler's Garage" on the lower level and make it an interactive education center with more engaging exhibits and visitor experiences. Monies collected will also be used to re-invent the main gallery and second floor to tell the Chrysler story with upgraded content. Phase two will include construction of on-site storage for the off-site vehicle collection. The current 55,000 square foot building will be expanded to make room for new exhibits and programming.

Although Iacocca received an award and was inducted into the Legacy Circle, he did not attend the press conference beforehand.

Ground was broken for the construction of the museum in 1996 and it opened to the public on Oct. 5, 1999. Over 500,000 guests have walked through the museum since that time. It became a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) public charity on Feb. 1, 2008.

For more information on Chrysler Legacy Gala, visit www.wpchryslerlegacygala.org.

Related Story: Inaugural Walter P. Chrysler Legacy Gala to Honor Lee Iacocca, Jay Leno, Richard Petty and Virgil Exner Saturday, July 24

 

PHOTO BY JASON RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

Workers from 2Unique set up the strolling dinner on the bottom level of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.

 

PHOTO BY JASON RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

Former NASCAR Champion Richard Petty stands next to his #43 race car.

 

PHOTO BY JASON RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

Talk show host Jay Leno chats with Virgil Exner Jr. (son of former Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner).

 

PHOTO BY JASON RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

Exner, Leno and Petty address the media during a press conference.

 

Photo credit: Chrysler Electronic Communications

The Chrysler Legacy Circle award

 

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