CHICAGO – He may have slowed a step, but the wit and wisdom of Lee Iacocca remains lightning fast.

While a small list of suitors bid for Chrysler Group, some wonder, who better to run the auto maker in the future than the man who saved it in the past?

“I’ve been asked if I’d like to be back running it, and I say, ‘If I had the money I’d buy it.’ But I’m too old – and besides, been there, done that,” Iacocca, 82, says when reached by phone at his California home.

Iacocca retired as Chrysler chairman in 1992 after rescuing the company from bankruptcy in 1980 by obtaining federal loan guarantees to keep it afloat.

Now, he says he’s a bit puzzled over talk of selling Chrysler.

“I don’t know what prompted talk of the sale in the first place, though it did run up the (DaimlerChrysler AG) stock from the $40 to $50 a share level to $85,” he points out.

Though Iacocca won’t be writing a check, someone will, he predicts.

“It definitely will be sold, I just don’t know to whom, Blackstone (Group), Cerberus (Capital Management LP) or the guys from Canada (Magna International Inc.).”

While not supporting any one bid, he notes Magna “is a hell of a company, with 82,000 workers, $25 billion in revenues, and is our biggest customer with 25% to 30% of our (Chrysler’s) business, plus it runs our plant in Graz, Austria,” which makes minivans, 300 sedans and Jeeps for the European market.

When Chrysler was fighting bankruptcy in the 1980s, Iacocca trekked to Washington where he had little trouble getting politicians to offer government loan guarantees to keep the auto maker from going out of business.

Iacocca, an avowed Democrat who the party once tried to enlist to run for presidency, says that while General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler haven’t begged Washington for help, the Bush Admin. hasn’t volunteered any either.

“Bush said the industry has to learn to compete and build relevant cars. Thanks for the tip, Mr. President,” Iacocca quips.

“He gave the chief executives of GM, Ford and Chrysler 45 minutes in a meeting to discuss their problems. He gave more time to a visit by the folks from ‘American Idol.’ He’s got his priorities screwed up.

“It’s time for the government to take a look, find out what happened, what caused it and help in the solution. GM, Ford and Chrysler are all in trouble. The problem is that it could get down to only GM. Someday, we could wake up and find GM has gone under and then there were none. No domestics left. That’s crazy.”

Iacocca says the industry, government and the United Auto Workers union have to sit down and figure out how each can help.

“Everything depends on the union contract ritual in September. Health care is a multibillion cost. The industry has to get concessions, certainly in benefits. I don’t know how they’re going to survive if they don’t,” Iacocca says.

“Too many retirees are sitting home. At Toyota (Motor Corp. operations in the U.S.), for every 100 active workers, they have two sitting home. At Chrysler, for every 100 active workers, we have 155 sitting home. Toyota’s health care runs $200 a car; ours (Chrysler’s) runs $1,500. No one wants to hear concessions, but it was the $2.5 billion in concessions we got from the union in the ‘80s that allowed us to survive, more than it was the government bailout money.”

Iacocca, however, says he’s seen some recent early contract negotiating in the press complete with talk of demands as well as name-calling.

“That’s bad. You don’t negotiate or call names in the press. You negotiate and call names when bargaining behind closed doors.”

Iacocca admits he contributed to the problem now facing Chrysler by turning the reigns over to Bob Eaton, who had been running GM’s European operations, rather than Bob Lutz, who was Chrysler’s vice chairman, when Iacocca retired in 1992.

Lutz vindicated himself by joining GM and helping lead its product renaissance, while Eaton ended up selling Chrysler to the highest bidder, Daimler-Benz AG, after Iacocca left.

In his new book, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?,” Iacocca writes: “I’ll always believe that if I hadn’t chosen Eaton to succeed me, (Chrysler) would still be a strong, profitable, American car company.”

In the phone interview, Iacocca leaves no doubt he remains bitter.

“Unfortunately, I should have checked Eaton out better,” he says.

Kirk Kerkorian made a bid for Chrysler shortly after Iacocca retired and said he’d bring Iacocca back out to run the company if Eaton agreed to the sale.

Rather than risk being ousted, Eaton entertained a bid from Daimler that kept his job.

“Eaton panicked. We were making $1 billion a quarter and had $12 billion in cash, and while he said it was a merger of equals, he sold Chrysler to Daimler-Benz when we should have bought them,” Iacocca says.

As for Iacocca’s new book, the industry had better meet with Bush before the president reads it.

In the first paragraph of his new tome, Iacocca writes: “We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane, much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when politicians say, ‘Stay the course.’ This is America, not the Titanic. Throw the bums out.”

The typically outspoken Iacocca says in the interview that when he reached 80, “someone told me, ‘Now you have to be politically correct.’ I said: ‘To whom?’”