The stainless steel life of playboy carmaker John Z. DeLorean
(Originally appeared in Road & Track, March 17, 2014)
John DeLorean was a 6' 4" automotive superstar. Father of the GTO, brain behind the Firebird, instigator of the Grand Prix, and eponymous founder of the DeLorean Motor Company. Shaggy hair—dyed jet black—thick sideburns, Italian suits, and shirts unbuttoned to the navel. He wore gold chains and had a garage stacked deep with foreign sports cars.
He had showgirls on his arm, starlets in his bed, and a string of supermodel wives. He delighted journalists and showbiz friends—and was a constant thorn in the side of his GM executives. He was dragged through courts and tried for everything from drug trafficking and racketeering to breach of contract and tax evasion, never once convicted. He went bankrupt, found God, and was saved by a movie about a time-traveling car. DeLorean was the stainless steel body of his DMC-12—he'd never rust, but oh, how easy he was to scratch.
THE BIRTH OF THE AUTO PRINCE
DeLorean grew up on the east side of Detroit during the Great Depression, earned three degrees (two in mechanical engineering), and served in World War II before eventually joining the Pontiac division of General Motors. He quickly made his mark, bringing innovations like concealed windshield wipers and the Endura bumper to the division. (DeLorean once boasted that he held more than 200 patents.) His greatest contribution was the GTO, which tripled Pontiac's sales.
He was the driving force behind the Firebird and Grand Prix, earning a promotion to the head of Chevrolet in 1969. "The Auto Prince" and the "Detroit Dream Maker" started making real money, rubbing elbows with showgirls and tycoons alike, owning stakes in the New York Yankees and the San Diego Chargers, and palling around with Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson. He divorced his first wife, dated Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress, then married a 20-year-old starlet.
By 1971, Chevy was enjoying record sales, earning DeLorean further promotion to Vice President of Car and Truck Production for General Motors. But his peacock style clashed with the brass, and less than a year later he resigned from his $650,000-a-year position. GM gave him a Cadillac franchise in Florida as a parting gift. He divorced again and married supermodel Christine Ferrare, earning the headline "Swinger Tycoon Gets Domesticated Model" in People Magazine. DeLorean wasn't yet 50, but he was set for life.
THE DELOREAN MOTOR COMPANY
"I can build you a factory, design and produce a car, employ two thousand people, all in 18 months," DeLorean told the British government in 1978. In return, it gave him £100 million and told him to open his new factory in West Belfast, Northern Ireland.
DeLorean's pitch: to build the first "ethical" sports car—a car that was sporty, fuel efficient, and safe. That car was the DeLorean DMC-12, with its distinct stainless steel body and gull-wing doors that set tongues wagging. But the reality was that the DeLorean wasn't much faster than a station wagon (thanks to a wheezing French-designed V6), and it didn't handle well. It retailed at $25,000—more expensive than a Corvette or the Porsche 924 Turbo. The company hoped to sell 12,000 cars a year, but sold only 3000 in 1981.
A financial miss, the DeLorean still had its fans—Johnny Carson loved it so much, it was the car he was pulled over in during a drunk driving arrest in Beverly Hills in 1982. But its inventor lived higher on the hog than ever. He rented a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York, owned property in New Jersey and California, and was a staple of the cocaine-fueled 1980s glamor scene as his company dove further into the red. Margaret Thatcher denied a bailout, and DeLorean got desperate.
A BRIEFCASE AND 50 POUNDS OF COCAINE
DeLorean's neighbor, an FBI informant, brokered a $60 million cocaine deal in which DeLorean was asked to front $2 million. When he couldn't come up with the money, the FBI agreed to let him front company stock instead. DeLorean was videotaped in a Los Angeles airport hotel with a briefcase packed with 50 pounds of cocaine, crowing, "It's as good as gold."
He was arrested and charged with drug trafficking. As his case headed to trial, the British government closed the DeLorean Motor Company factory, ending the company's run of nearly 9000 DMC-12s, of which approximately 6000 still exist today. Two years later, DeLorean was off the hook, thanks to the legal principle of entrapment. DeLorean Motor Company, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky.
THE LEGACY OF MARTY McFLY
Lightning struck in 1985 with a little movie called Back to the Future—maybe you've heard of it? Licensing fees from the three films (total gross to date: $416 million), an animated television series, toys, and more helped keep DeLorean's head above water as creditors, partners, and government agencies dragged him to court over the next five years for breach of contract, racketeering, income tax evasion, and unpaid attorney fees.
He divorced again in 1985, married for a fourth time, and led a much quieter life through the 1990s. Delorean filed for bankruptcy in 1999, even selling his 1978 Yankees World Series ring, and died in New Jersey on March 19, 2005 due to complications from a stroke. He was 80 years old.
A rebel to the end, DeLorean was buried in Troy, Michigan, wearing a black motorcycle jacket, blue jeans, and a denim shirt. He was interred beneath a headstone featuring his iconic DeLorean DMC-12, still with an outstanding warrant for his arrest back in England.