March 21, 2005

John DeLorean dead at 80

Summit, New Jersey – John DeLorean, the carmaker who left a promising career at General Motors to develop a stainless-steel, gull-winged sportscar in Northern Ireland, has died at the age of 80.

John DeLorean
DeLorean was a rising star at General Motors and many felt he was poised to take over as the company’s president until he left in 1973 to form his own car company. Perhaps his most important contribution to GM came in 1964, when he took a mid-sized Pontiac Tempest LeMans and dropped a 389-cid V8 into it. He called it the GTO. GM’s management had banned any intermediate-sized car with an engine larger than 330-cid, so DeLorean did the only thing he could: he hid it in the fine print. As an option, rather than a model, it didn’t need corporate approval. DeLorean drove the car himself to dealers, urging them to order a car GM executives didn’t know existed.

By the time the company found out, it was too late to cancel it, and it set a cap of 5,000 vehicles. DeLorean had the last laugh when it sold so well that the cap was lifted and the 1964 model sold 32,450 copies.

DeLorean planned his sportscar as early as 1976, which debuted in 1980. Renault was contracted to build the factory and make the engine, while Lotus designed the chassis and bodywork details. The factory was located in Belfast, Ireland, and by 1981 employed more than 2,600 people.

The project ran into great difficulty, including engineering problems, an extremely cold winter in the U.S. that cut into car sales, and more than anything, the car’s price. A proposed MSRP of US$12,000 eventually rose to US$26,000 by the time the first 1981 model rolled out, or US$11,000 more than the Corvette which DeLorean had targeted for competition.

DeLorean sought additional funding in the U.K. and the United States, but the company went into receivership in February 1982. Fewer than 10,000 cars were made in 21 months when the factory closed in November 1982.

That same month, DeLorean was arrested in a sting operation for attempting to sell US$24 million worth of cocaine, after an accountant’s report said the company could be saved for US$20 million. He pleaded entrapment and was acquitted of the charges.

In 1985 the remaining vehicles and parts were auctioned off. The car remains popular with collectors and appeared as Michael J. Fox’s time-travelling machine in the movie Back To The Future.

DeLorean died Saturday in Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey of complications after a recent stroke.

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