When Detroit’s youngest star turned his life into a three-ring circus while trying to build his own motoring empire, writes Michael Stahl.
Fast forward to the past: In 1985, as a dashing young motoring writer, I was given the opportunity to drive a rare and radical-looking British-built supercar. It had a rear-mounted engine, just like a Porsche 911, gullwing doors like the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300SL and its Giugiaro-designed body had a skin of stainless steel.
The car was the DeLorean DMC-52, and the shiny, chiselled exterior proved to be a hollow promise. The engine was a wheezy V6 from some anonymous European sedan, it handled like an American car and the “Made in Britain” label meant a factory in Belfast, the epicentre of republican rioting in Northern Ireland.
The car’s missed potential and its Hollywood flim-flam equally describe DeLorean, the man. An innovative engineer and marketer, jet-setting General Motors executive, friend to entertainers and movie moguls, DeLorean had risen so quickly to the top of the automotive industry he believed hot air would keep him there.
John Zachary DeLorean was born in 1925 in Detroit. He showed precocious talents in music, engineering and drafting, and after a three-year stint in military service earned college degrees in mechanical and automotive engineering.
De Lorean impressed at old-school automaker Packard before joining General Motors’ Pontiac division in 1956. Though an engineer, he spotted the potential market for performance cars in the 1960s and flouted GM’s big-engine/big-car edict to ultimately create the iconic 1964 Pontiac GTO, the spark for the ’60s US muscle car movement.
At 40, De Lorean became general manager of Pontiac, GM’s youngest ever division chief. In four more years he was running Chevrolet, the biggest division of the world’s biggest automaker.
There was the lifestyle to match. In 1969 DeLorean dumped his first wife, Elizabeth, to marry 19-year-old Kelly Harmon. He dated actresses Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress before marrying model Cristina Ferrare in 1973. Like his previous wife, she was 25 years his junior.
No stranger to new models and facelifts, DeLorean was said to have had a new, squared-off chin implanted. Along with all this came corporate jets, football and baseball teams and high-flying friendships with big Hollywood names, including Sammy Davis Jr and Johnny Carson.
In 1973 DeLorean, in his own words, “fired” General Motors. Reading the climate of consumer activism he began to tout an “ethical” car— one that would be cheap to run, boast unrivalled safety and have a stainless steel “skin” to prevent rust.
He bankrolled his $US175 million DeLorean Motor Company dream by selling shares. High-profile friends, including Carson, toted up the first $US12 million and 343 aspiring dealers contributed a further $US10 million. Then DeLorean went looking for bigger fish to fry.
Northern Ireland was wracked with sectarian violence and unemployment. In 1978, on DeLorean’s prediction of 2,600 jobs and up to 30,000 cars a year, the British Labour government offered a £55 million package to build cars in Belfast. Three years later, the Thatcher government coughed up a further £30 million.
Along the way, DeLorean engaged Colin Chapman, of Lotus fame, to engineer the “dream car”. Chapman’s $US17.5 million fee was diverted to a mysterious company in the Bahamas, which turned out to be secretly owned by John DeLorean and Chapman. Chapman didn’t live long enough to explain.
The DMC-12 finally went on sale in mid-1981. It had evolved from an ethical car to one targeted, in DeLorean’s words, at “the horny young bachelor. Novelties of skin and doors aside, the DMC-12 was an underpowered patchwork of poorly assembled proprietary parts. (1985 the car was cast in Back to the Future after the original “time machine”, a refrigerator, was pulled because it may have influenced kids to climb into fridges.)
Meanwhile, John DeLorean was living large. He ran his business from a penthouse apartment in Manhattan. For a time, he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Concorde’s most frequent flyer.
While he sipped Moet at Mach 1, however his DMC-12s were queuing up on the docks at Belfast. Chronic quality issues, which had even stranded investor Carson by the roadside, had cruelled its reputation in a US car market already in downturn. DeLorean needed cash to keep his Motor Company afloat. He would claim this as the honourable reason for his involvement in the alleged smuggling of $U524 million worth of cocaine, for which he was arrested in a Los Angeles hotel in October 1982. He later escaped the charges on the grounds of FBI entrapment.
DMC was gone, having built 8,600 cars. But John Z had divine help, becoming a born-again Christian in 1982 with a full-immersion baptism in his heated swimming pool. In a typical move, he changed the name of one of his shelf companies to Ecclesiastes 9:10-11-12, which had the effect of stalling creditors while DeLorean continued to luxuriate on his 175-hectare New Jersey estate.
In 1999, after years of legal battles, DeLorean declared himself bankrupt. He spent his last years with his fourth wife, Sally, spruiking a new, magical sports can concept and selling DMC2 watches over a website. John Z. DeLorean died in May 2005.