This story by Suzanne Snider—which details the fantastical rise and fall of John DeLorean, a former titan of the American automotive industry—first appeared in the June/July 2006 issue of Tokion. Snider is the founder/director of Oral History Summer School, and she is currently completing a nonfiction book about rival communes on adjacent land. Our thanks to Snider for allowing us to feature it on Longreads.
By 1999 John DeLorean was bankrupt and swimming in $85 million debt, but he still hoped that his namesake De Lorean car would eventually come back into style. The thought wasn’t entirely absurd – Volkswagen was enjoying phenomenal success with its ‘new’ Beetle and the retro-styled PT Cruiser was a hit for Chrysler. Then again the De Lorean Motor Company’s signature car, the DMC-12, only had a ten to 11-month run of less than 9,000 cars. In other words, the 1982 De Lorean car was retro by 1983. By 1985 the De Lorean was a joke in Back to the Future, so dated it made for a perfect time machine.
The timeline of DeLorean’s personal history is so tied to the history of automobiles that, even after his death in 2005 (at age 80, after suffering complications from a stroke), his various supporters and detractors are still debating his accomplishments and foibles. Both lists are long. Some argue for the flashy and obvious, such as the DMC-12’s gull-wing doors and rust proof stainless steel body. But other innovations attributed to DeLorean include the lane-change turn signal, the recessed windshield wiper, and a list of inventions and patents ranging from 3 to 200, depending on who you ask. He also was said to be responsible for bringing the overhead-cam engine to GM.
One more thing: John DeLorean was also the person responsible for the world’s first muscle car, the ’64 Pontiac GTO, a car that initiated one of the most successful and drastic industry makeovers in automotive history.
Unfortunately, you can go back to the old cars, but you can never go back to the old Detroit.
In the 1970s and ’80s, a star map of car kings would have been laid out around the suburbs of Detroit, with frequent sightings in Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe in particular.
In Southfield, Michigan, you’d find the middling businessmen whose stars had not yet risen. For children in these communities, car culture permeated daily life, even for those of whose families were not directly involved with the industry. This is where I grew up, and this was the case for the most part with my family. Or at least it was the case until my father became the De Lorean Motor Company’s bankruptcy attorney.
I was nine years old in 1982, when my father flew from Detroit to New Jersey to meet with John DeLorean, in order to “answer some questions about bankruptcy.” I had no idea what exactly DeLorean was famous for, but I knew he was a celebrity and that my mother was nagging my father about what he would be wearing to DeLorean’s 454-acre horse farm. My sister and I were more focused on inviting DeLorean to her Bat Mitzvah at Detroit’s Renaissance Center, a set of black skyscrapers built in 1971 as a response to the city’s 1967 riots and the subsequent white flight to the suburbs.
Perhaps my sister and I already knew deep down that Detroit (or at least her party) needed John DeLorean more than DeLorean needed Detroit. He was a good face for the industry, even if the rumors were true that he had paid several cosmetic surgeons to construct the countenance. To us, he looked like a swashbuckling soap star who happened to do something with cars.
Dancing at the Renaissance Center in the early ‘80s was a little bit like driving a De Lorean in the ‘90s: when the luxury turns into embarrassment or when you throw a massive party and nobody really shows up. DeLorean never made it our party: not long before my sister became a woman in the eyes of the Jewish religion, he was busted on charges that he tried to obtain more than 50 pounds of cocaine. The bust happened five days before Ronald Reagan officially proclaimed his “war on drugs.” DeLorean had been caught on tape boasting to undercover agents that the coke was “good as gold.”
My father had been called in to represent DeLorean before the bust, and he continued to work with DeLorean afterward. My father remembers one particularly grueling day, which began in New York City at 8 a.m. The Bank of America was ready to seize DeLorean’s cars, and DeLorean thought my father could buy a little time. While they flew to Los Angeles, one of DeLorean’s “associates” reportedly arrived at the horse farm with hired guns, and the modern-day bandits proceeded to draw and point their weapons at the Bank of America employees who had arrived to seize property.
Meanwhile, my father was playing by the rules in an oxford and bow tie, meeting with the bank’s representatives, followed by a meeting with a Swiss financier. DeLorean and my father continued meetings until, at midnight in Los Angeles (3 a.m. New York time), DeLorean was finally ready to meet with all of his company’s car dealers. Even my father, a hardy insomniac, could not keep the pace. Looking back, he realizes DeLorean may have had a chemical advantage.
Anytime my father attempted to suggest or impose restrictions or rules on the business, DeLorean reminded him that he had designed a car that everyone said he could not design, that he had built a factory that everyone said he could not build. Though the government’s drug-related charges were all dismissed in 1984 on grounds of entrapment, the De Lorean Motor Company was already history. When my father filed Chapter 11 paperwork in October 1982, none of us totally appreciated all that was dismantled: DeLorean’s vision, his patents and a litany of other sub-miracles that DeLorean had performed, post-GTO and pre-blow.
Most of all, it was the end of the story of John DeLorean as part of the American Dream—how a humble kid from Detroit could rise to the very top.
Before John Z. DeLorean had a capital “L” in his last name or an pseudo-European space—De Lorean—in his company name, he was plain John Delorean, the son of immigrants, born in 1925 and raised on Detroit’s east side, a lower-middle class neighborhood.
DeLorean’s mother was Hungarian and worked for General Electric. His father was from Romania and worked at the Ford foundry doing factory work. Despite a troubled relationship with his father, DeLorean was a motivated and successful young student who managed to gain entrance to one of the most elite public schools in Detroit: Cass Technical High School, popularly known as Cass Tech.
Originally conceived as a trade school for young men in 1861, Cass Tech grew so rapidly and successfully that in the 1920s students were asked to leave after two years to find jobs, in order to make room for those on the waitlist. Finding a job was relatively easy for Cass Tech’s students since the school functioned as a feeder into design divisions of the Big Three automakers. The young DeLorean’s course in life seemed to have been set. Yet, in the first of many odd twists in his biography, DeLorean initially decided to bank on his skills playing the saxophone.
Upon graduation from Cass Tech DeLorean won a music scholarship at the Lawrence Institute of Technology. But in 1943, before he could graduate, DeLorean was drafted into the army. Three years later he returned to Detroit and spent several years working odd jobs before completing his undergraduate degree and enrolling for an engineering research opportunity at the Chrysler Institute. Positions at the Institute were highly coveted—Chrysler offered these post-graduate positions the starting salary of a company engineer. Completing both a Master’s degree in Automotive Engineering and, later, an MBA from the University of Michigan, DeLorean officially joined the Chrysler team in 1957. But after only one year at Chrysler, DeLorean moved to the Packard car company, and then quickly on to General Motors’ Pontiac Division.
And that is where he spearheaded the GTO, America’s first muscle car, ushering the entire American auto industry into a new era of unbridled competition and massive profits.
The concept was simple: big engine, small car. But the execution was not.
In the early 1960s General Motors imposed a strict mandate prohibiting the production of “high performance” car models that suggested racing or high-speed. This rule was detailed in a January 1963 memo that banned the use of GM cars in all racing activities (repeating a more general American Manufacturer’s Association rule dating back to 1957.) To specifically delineate non-racing cars from racing cars, GM required that the company’s cars weigh at least ten or more pounds per cubic inch of engine displacement, specs that insured cars would not be speedy enough for racing.
As Pontiac’s chief engineer, DeLorean was just one of several ambitious engineers determined to shove a 389 cubic inch motor into the company’s Tempest LeMans, an already existing 3400-pound car. If they weren’t going to exactly be building racecars, they were still going to build performance-cars. Pontiac was already rallying from its reputation as a less-than-sexy division of the GM company, and DeLorean and company were already working on their Tempest LeMans transformation when the 1963 mandate came down, a set of restrictions that were viewed by DeLorean and others as an affront to Pontiac’s recent progress and future plans.
But DeLorean saw something that the other engineers bent over their drafting boards did not see: a loophole. DeLorean came up with the idea to offer customers a Tempest LeMans with options… Options like, say, a V8 engine. With only this flimsy loophole justifying his obvious defiance of the spirit of company law, DeLorean’s crafty design team created the new GTO, a name taken from Ferrari’s GTO (where it stood for “Gran Tourismo Omologato.”)
When the Pontiac GTO entered the market in 1964 (with a GTO options package for just $296; the whole GTO LeMans ran around $4000), it defined a new class of automobile. From 1964 through 1974 American car manufacturers cranked out a long line of legendary, high performance cars—the Plymouth Road Runner, the Chevrolet Chevelle and the Dodge Super Bee, Charger and Barracuda, among others. It’s actually nearly impossible to find a precise definition for a muscle car—the term was not even used until the 1970s—but the Muscle Car Club nevertheless proposes a set of distinct parameters that unifies the cars of this era: “A muscle car, by the strictest definition, is an intermediate-sized performance-oriented model, powered by a large V8 engine, at an affordable price. Most of these models were based on ‘regular’ production vehicles.” In other words: DeLorean’s team had created the blueprint for one of the most legendary and beloved car types in American automotive history.
Though GM blazed the trail for muscle cars, the company was unprepared to compete with Ford’s contribution to the new breed or class of car: compact ‘pony’ cars. In April, 1964 Lee Iacocca introduced the Mustang, and within the next two years, Ford produced over 1.5 million Mustangs, a previously unimaginable total. Though similar to the GTO, the Mustang offered the same power in an even more compact body. It wasn’t until the introduction of the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird in 1967 that GM was able to reenter the very race the company (and DeLorean) had started.
Of course, today’s car consumers can only dream of such a ruthlessly competitive and innovative American automobile industry. With the 1973 OPEC embargo on oil, and the emergence of emissions testing, muscle and pony car production all but ended by the mid-‘70s. Worse yet, the aggressive creative ethos that had spawned these cars also died a slow death throughout the decade.
But the rules were different in the ‘60s. For his act of defiance in creating the GTO, DeLorean was handsomely rewarded by his superiors. Leapfrogging ahead of several promising engineers (with more seniority) he rose from division head at Pontiac to be head of all North American operations and Vice-President of GM. At Pontiac, DeLorean had already been the youngest GM division head, only 40 years old. As head of North American operations, his star continued to rise, to the tune of a $650,000 per year paycheck, a steep increase from $20,000 starting salary.
By 1973, he had the fame. The title. The money. At which point he promptly resigned.
“They were celebrities.” That’s how Eddie Alterman, a childhood friend of mine who is now an editor for car-centric MPH Magazine, remembers the Detroit-area car executives of that era. “But they were also like the Roman army: they were tall, goyish and had to inspire confidence in their troops.” With a bit of sympathy, Alterman notes that “they all had huge egos,” and in the case of DeLorean, his vanity drove his taste in cars, clothing and women. That last item on DeLorean’s list included three wives, plus reported dalliances with Ursula Andress, Candice Bergen and Raquel Welch. But the same ego that was necessary to excel at General Motors and every other car corporation may have been the very source of his downfall once he pulled apart to form his own corporate entity.
DeLorean’s departure from GM was controversial, to say the least. Where could he go from GM? Gossips floated conspiracy theories about his resignation. It might have come down to style—not fashion, strictly, but a more general personal manner. My father notes that, “In those days, the execs at General Motors were all dressed in white shirts. But DeLorean was into more flamboyant clothing. He was tall, good-looking, wore his hair long…” And as my father discovered, “He had his shirts hand-made, with the collars cut extra-long.”
DeLorean founded the De Lorean Motor Company in 1975, with the express goal of creating a relatively affordable $25,000 sports car. The first factory didn’t open until 1981, however, and it opened in an unlikely location: Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast in Northern Ireland. The prototype for the DMC-12 was completed somewhere between 1976 and 1978. What was DeLorean doing in the seven years in between? Ostensibly, he was raising money, tapping into a social network that included Hollywood, where he convinced Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. to invest in the De Lorean Motor Company. In fact, Johnny Carson’s dedication to the De Lorean business was memorialized when Carson was arrested for a DUI while driving in—what else—a De Lorean.
The British government offered to give DeLorean something close to $120 million dollars to build his factory in Northern Ireland, and the Dunmurry factory remained one of the achievements of which DeLorean was proudest. The factory brought together the area’s Protestant and Catholic workers together in one workplace for the very first time, although there was a separate entrance for each group. (This design scheme supposed owed more to geography than factory-imposed segregation, since the building sat exactly on the border between the two communities.)
Ultimately, there were other drawbacks: since Northern Ireland did not boast a highly trained labor-pool, many of the De Lorean cars had to be rebuilt in the United States. Despite its gull-wing doors and perfectly rustproof stainless steel body, the DMC was criticized as poor-performance. “The De Lorean was a substandard car (with) a cool-looking body,” as Alterman puts it. Undaunted, DeLorean planned to make a plastic-body car that would sell for $20,000.
Before that could happen, DeLorean ran into trouble with his other import business—the one from South America.
When we look at the De Lorean today, we see what we—or at least John DeLorean—thought of the future, in the past. Like a tin-foil spaceship you made for your fourth grade diorama project, the De Lorean car now looks both inspiring and primitive. But do not underestimate the power of nostalgia. These days every car corporation in Detroit and elsewhere is banking on baby boomers snapping up new models that affect the look or spirit of cars from when they grew up: new Mustangs, GTOs, Chargers and Camaros, not to mention the new Beetles, Mini Coopers and PT Cruisers.
Why now? With gas prices higher than ever, hybrids on the horizon and SUVs still hogging the road, is the muscle car really still part of the zeitgeist? Perhaps the hope among the big 12 car manufacturers is that a swell of money from new muscle-car consumers would revert Detroit to its past glories. Frankly, that is unlikely: the means of production have long since been exported out of the city.
Detroit’s greatest prospect, Alterman suggests, is alternative fuel as opposed to cars. “The biggest hope for this area is if it becomes agrarian again: if we process bio-fuels. People developing bio-fuel (engines) are either based in Silicon Valley or Detroit. You have to make it near where you plan to distribute it, because it can’t go through the country’s gas lines.”
To casual observers, that prospect might seem far-fetched—it would most likely require a forward thinking visionary to turn the automotive business in this radical direction. Of course, Detroit car manufacturers do not appear ready to accept this idea, even if their resistance is built more on nostalgia and image than reality. As it turns out, nostalgia is the proverbial engine driving American car production and car consumers.
Despite the questionable outlook for Detroit’s car industry, Alterman still offers that we are indeed back in a golden age of car design. “There’s never been more stuff lining up in the auto world’s favor. This is the golden age of choice. The sky is the limit.”
That attitude is indeed the DeLorean legacy.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed the invention of the turn signal and overhead camshaft engine to DeLorean—he did not invent either, but he was responsible for advances related to both. The overhead camshaft was already installed in cars prior to DeLorean’s appearance on the scene, but he was the first to bring the camshaft to GM (Pontiac).