Delorean DMC-12; photo by Kevin Abato,
Delorean DMC-12; photo by Kevin Abato, Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

It should have been the grand realization of the American Dream. A lower middle-class immigrant’s son from a tough Detroit neighbourhood puts himself through technical college while helping support the family. Through hard work and intelligence he rises to within sight of the presidency of the world’s mightiest corporation. Then something goes wrong.

John DeLorean was born in Detroit on January 6, 1925. Despite a spotty primary education, partly in California where his mother went during marriage separations, DeLorean’s academic marks qualified him for Detroit’s well regarded Cass Technical High School.

With a scholarship he graduated in engineering from Detroit’s Lawrence Institute of Technology in 1948. Summer work with Chrysler Corporation introduced him to the auto industry where he completed a master’s degree in engineering at the Chrysler Institute in 1952 and a Masters of Business Administration from University of Michigan.

DeLorean decided that Chrysler was too big an enterprise so he moved to Packard where he gained experience in a wide variety of assignments from the machine shop to road testing cars. Within four years he was heading Packard’s Research and Development.

John DeLorean
John DeLorean; photo courtesy General Motors. Click image to enlarge

When Packard and Studebaker amalgamated to become Studebaker-Packard in 1954, DeLorean saw a dim future. In September, 1956 he joined Pontiac Division of General Motors, mainly because he was impressed with Pontiac’s general manager, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen and its newly appointed chief engineer Elliott (Pete) Estes. Knudsen became DeLorean’s mentor, introduced him to the right people, imparted the nuances of corporate politics and instilled a strong feeling of self-confidence.

Pontiac’s staid but reliable “old lady” image was far from exciting. To turn it around Knudsen formed an Advanced Engineering Department with DeLorean in charge. It probably accomplished more than Knudsen expected.

It wasn’t long before Pontiac became a name to be reckoned with in stock car racing, success that was reflected in increased sales.

In 1961, Knudsen moved to be general manager of Chevrolet, Estes became general manager of Pontiac with DeLorean as chief engineer. Those were memorable years for Pontiac with many successes and a few failures.

Outstanding achievements were the Wide-Track Pontiac, Grand Prix, Firebird Trans Am, and the GTO that spawned the 1960s muscle car craze. Less successful were the Pontiac Tempest’s torsion bar “rope drive” driveshaft and the huge, rough-running “half a V8” 3.2-litre slant four.

DeLorean’s career was in full flight. In 1965 he became Pontiac’s general manager, the youngest in GM history, and in 1969 general manager of GM’s flagship division, Chevrolet. It had administrative problems and was losing market share, but DeLorean turned it around, including struggling with the star-crossed Vega. In 1972, at 48, he was promoted to GM’s fabled fourteenth floor as group vice-president, car and truck production.

Although his meteoric rise brought DeLorean within sight of GM’s Presidency, there was trouble ahead on mahogany row. Behaviour that was tolerated in car divisions, provided sales were good, was frowned on in the executive suite.

DeLorean became bored with “paper shuffling” and his personal life and philosophy were out of sync with the conservative corporation. His dress and hair style, divorce, and consorting with glamorous movie stars clashed with GM’s staid management culture. It all came to a head in April, 1973, and John resigned from his $650,000 job with GM. Whether he had a choice is uncertain.

DeLorean hinted that he left because his ethics and values were incompatible with GM’s. He became an American folk hero, further consolidated when he vowed to build an “ethical car.”

DeLorean founded the DeLorean Motor Co. in 1974, and a stainless steel-clad prototype, two-seater sports coupe was completed by 1976. Styling came from famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugaro, with extensive engineering input from Lotus of England. It had a rear-mounted Peugoet-Renault-Volvo single overhead cam 2.8-litre V6, steel backbone frame and gullwing doors.

The 6 ft. 4 in., charismatic DeLorean went searching for a government to subsidize his project. He found socialist Britain anxious to create jobs in troubled Northern Ireland. A factory was built in Dunmurray near Belfast, and DeLorean DMC12 production began in January, 1981.

But independent testers found the rear-engined 1,288-kg DeLorean slow – zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) 10.5 seconds; top speed 175 km/h (109 mph) (Road & Track 12/’81) – and its handling erratic. An early 1980s recession depressed the market for speciality cars and by 1982 British government subsidies stopped amid suggestions of impropriety. DeLorean Motor Co. went into receivership after producing some 7,500 DeLoreans.

The final blow came in October, 1982 when John DeLorean was arrested in Los Angeles for alleged cocaine trafficking, apparently to save his company. He pleaded entrapment and was acquitted in 1984, too late to save the DeLorean. John settled in New Jersey, became a born-again Christian and declared personal bankruptcy in 1999. He died in March, 2005 at age 80, his American Dream unfulfilled.

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