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DeLorean, John Zacharyfree

(1925–2005)
  • Richard Davenport-Hines

John Zachary DeLorean (1925–2005)

by unknown photographer, 1981

DeLorean, John Zachary (1925–2005), motor car manufacturer, was born on 6 January 1925 in Detroit, Michigan, USA, the eldest of four sons of Zachary DeLorean, a Romanian-born foundry worker in the Ford motor car works, and his wife, Kathryn, née Pribak, a factory worker of Austro-Hungarian antecedents. His father was a violent alcoholic whose family suffered many deprivations and terrors. John DeLorean, who was educated at Cass Technical High School, Detroit, was drafted into the US army for three years midway through his course at the Lawrence Institute of Technology in Detroit, but graduated in 1948. He joined the Chrysler Corporation before transferring in 1952 to the Packard company, where he worked in the research and development of hydraulics and transmissions systems.

In 1956 DeLorean was recruited to the Pontiac division of General Motors (GM), serving first as director of advanced engineering, then as chief engineer from 1961 and general manager from 1965. He incorporated vertically stacked headlights, racing stripes, cockpit-style interiors, angled instrument panels, and other accessories into the designs of Pontiac models such as the GTO and Firebird, which greatly raised sales to young male buyers, and he was a vice-president of GM by the age of thirty-nine. After being promoted in 1969 to be general manager of GM's Chevrolet division, he turned around its profitability. Subsequently he assumed responsibility for GM's five American car divisions (Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac), its American truck and coach division, and its Canadian operations. Nevertheless his flamboyance, egotism, and unconventionality jarred with his colleagues at GM, and he left the corporation in 1973. Next he registered the DeLorean Corporation, specializing in cars, camper vans, and trailers, and was involved in several business initiatives, including an avocado farm and a ski school, that ended in failure and litigation. He tried to attract government funding to set up a bus factory in the high unemployment area of South Bronx, but above all wanted to build an exotic sports car. Adapting a discarded Porsche design, he determined to build a rear-engined, two-seater sports car with an all-plastic chassis, stainless steel exterior, and gull-wing doors which, if both were open, gave the look of a bird in flight.

In June 1978 DeLorean approached the Labour government in London with a plan to build this sports car at a government-subsidized factory in Northern Ireland. Despite expert misgivings, Roy Mason, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, assured his cabinet colleagues that DeLorean's initiative would bring great political, social, and economic benefits to the province and prove a hammer-blow against the Irish Republican Army. Mason, who had an entrenched socialist faith in government intervention in industry, concluded a deal with DeLorean, after hectic negotiations, on 28 July. A site was selected at Dunmurry, south-west of Belfast, a beleaguered area of high unemployment straddled by both Catholic and protestant districts, and a factory was erected that created 2500 jobs. The accession to power in 1979 of a Conservative government altered the way in which Whitehall responded to DeLorean's urgent, honeyed words. The Thatcher cabinet mistrusted government subsidies of feeble industrial enterprises, and when DeLorean approached Mason's successor, James Prior, for another £40 million of government money to develop a sedan car, Prior proved more interested in reducing the company's £25 million overdraft, which carried a government guarantee. Prior initially found DeLorean suave, handsome, self-confident, and commanding, but decidedly tricky; later he decided that DeLorean was a confidence trickster. Engineering work on the DeLorean car DCM12 was assigned to the Lotus company in Norfolk. Production began in December 1980 with high hopes, but the car was underpowered, boring to drive, and expensive at $25,000 each—especially at a time when the USA, its only market, was in recession. 6000 DMC12s were supplied to the USA in the period to January 1982, but only 3000 were sold. The slipshod Belfast workers produced vehicles of such poor quality that they had to pass through rectification plants in the USA before they could be sold. The DeLorean Corporation was undercapitalized and hoped to raise $12 million by a float on the New York stock exchange, but the float was indefinitely postponed on the advice of its investment bankers.

The Belfast company was insolvent by January 1982, and Sir Kenneth Cork, who was appointed as its receiver, began to unravel the squalid mess. He found DeLorean pompous, sly, and blustering. When DMC12 production ceased in October 1982, British taxpayers had contributed £78 million to produce 8500 vehicles. Cork soon discovered that $17.5 million paid for the development costs of the car had been diverted through Panama to Switzerland, and had then been pocketed by DeLorean, Colin Chapman, the head of Lotus, and a Lotus executive, Frederick Bushell. Chapman died in 1982, and Bushell was jailed in 1992, but DeLorean evaded attempts to extradite him from the USA to face British criminal prosecution. In 1986 he was unwarrantably acquitted of related charges by an American court.

DeLorean had been genuinely dedicated to producing his own motor car, and longed to be the commander-in-chief of a motor corporation, but failed to control his venality or manage his headstrong talents. A desperate man who could not face failure, he hoped to save his toppling empire by a last desperate ploy, and after returning from Colombia he was arrested on 19 October 1982 in Los Angeles for importing 220 lb of cocaine worth £14.7 million into the USA. Despite strong evidence of his guilt, he was acquitted in August 1984 after arguing that he had been a victim of entrapment by the FBI. He was finally bankrupted in 1999, and his 434 acre estate in New Jersey (bought in 1981) was seized by a federal court in 2000. About the time of his arrest he became a born-again Christian.

DeLorean married first, in 1954 or 1957, Elizabeth Elaine Higgins. They had an adopted son and two daughters. After this marriage was dissolved, he married, on 31 May 1969, Kelly Harmon (b. c.1949), from whom he was divorced in 1972. On 8 May 1973 he married a model named Cristina Ferrare, from whom he was divorced in 1985. His fourth wife was Sally Baldwin. He died after a stroke on 19 March 2005 at Overlook Hospital, Summit, New Jersey. He was survived by his fourth wife and the children of his first marriage.

Sources

  • H. Levin, Grand delusions (1983)
  • M. Edwards, Back from the brink (1983)
  • J. DeLorean and T. Schwarz, DeLorean (1985)
  • I. Fallon and J. Srodes, Dreammakers (1985)
  • W. Haddad, Hard driving (1985)
  • J. Prior, A balance of power (1986)
  • K. Cork, Cork on Cork (1988)
  • R. Mason, Paying the price (1999)
  • The Guardian (21 March 2005)
  • The Times (22 March 2005)
  • Daily Telegraph (22 March 2005)
  • The Independent (21 March 2005)

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, ‘A little bit of money’, World in action, B. Blake (producer), Thames Television, 24 June 1985

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1961–98, Getty Images, London
  • photograph, 1979–86, Rex Features, London
  • photograph, 1981, Getty Images, London [see illus.]
  • photographs, 1981–7, PA Photos, London
  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, Camera Press, London