Day 715: When Cars Were Fun – The John DeLorean Story

originally published December 15, 2013

For many of us, shopping for a new car is a tedious and uninspiring chore. Sure, the end result is gratifying and fun (and damn expensive), but unless you’re in the market for a high-end speed machine or something with a gold-plated mini-bar and an anti-pursuit oil-slick hidden in the rear bumper, the shopping part is a perpetual drag. You’ll go into it having narrowed your selection to an SUV, a sedan, a minivan or whatever. You’ll compare fuel economy, horsepower, and maybe look for a built-in satellite radio. You’ll tell your friends about your comparisons and they’ll try to pretend you aren’t boring them half to sleep.

Let’s face it, the auto industry needs a rock star. Someone needs to step up and splash a little life in the face of those monstrous corporations that feed us the same car in slightly different packaging, over and over again.

Someone like John DeLorean. John’s most famous contribution to the car world is no doubt the vehicle that bears his name, the one Marty McFly used to flit around the timeline of Hill Valley for three movies. But John was more than a single gull-wing splash – he was the superstar the auto world needed, and the one it needs today.

John hooked up with Chrysler’s engineering team in 1952, after having earned his masters degree in automotive engineering with their company-run school. He quickly jumped ship to the Packard Motor Company, and caught his employer’s eye right out of the gate with his improvements to the Ultramatic transmission, which has nothing to do with the adjustable bed by the same name (I checked). Packard was a rotten place to be in the 50’s; Ford and GM were spurting out affordable vehicles to fight for the hungry and suddenly more affluent post-war consumer crowd, while Packard still positioned themselves as a manufacturer of high-end luxury cars.

Packard merged with Studebaker in 1954 (there’s a merger that was destined to go nowhere), and John was scooped up by GM. He was offered an executive spot in his choice of the company’s five divisions. John landed in the Pontiac wing and peppered the company’s vehicles with heaps of improvements and innovations. Still, Pontiac was known as the “old lady’s car” among buyers. That is, until John DeLorean came up with this thing:

The GTO, or Gran Turismo Omologato (which means ‘homologated’, another way of saying ‘approved by an authority’), gave John DeLorean the noble claim of having invented the muscle car. Once the Nashville surf-rock band Ronny & the Daytonas scored a top-5 hit about DeLorean’s creation, he became a mighty superstar in his field. At 40 years old he was the youngest person to have ever headed up a GM division.

He wanted to develop a smaller version of the Pontiac Banshee concept car to compete with the Ford Mustang, but his bosses didn’t want anything new under the GM banner that could mess with sales of the Corvette, their treasured pride in the fun-car world. He was given permission to tool around with the Camaro, and John soon came up with the Pontiac Firebird, the vehicular icon of young be-mulletted car-lovers throughout much of the 1970’s.

Virtually every Pontiac that slid off the line in the late 1960’s had John DeLorean’s stamp on it somehow. As head of the division, he was spending more time touring around the world, acquiring a reputation as a ‘maverick’ and a ‘rebel’, partly because he wore youthful, funky clothing, and partly because he continued to be innovative in developing cars that people under 30 were excited to drive. It was only a matter of time (and that time was early in 1969) before John was shuffled over to head up the Chevrolet line, GM’s most prestigious corporate crown.

With a hearty six-figure salary, John was now hobnobbing not only with other top executives, but with folks who were known for nobbing more exciting hobs: he was buddies with Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Las Vegas visionary Kirk Kerkorian, and James T. Aubrey, the head of MGM Studios. He owned a piece of the San Diego Chargers and the New York Yankees. He married actress and noted Tic-Tac model Kelly Harmon, daughter of Heisman Trophy Winner Tom Harmon and sister of future actor Mark Harmon.

In two years on the job, John turned around the struggling division and by 1971 Chevrolet was moving over 3 million units, almost as much as the entire production of the Ford Motor Company.

Then, John resigned. No one saw it coming – he simply stepped off the stable deck of the General Motors ship and landed his own little dinghy. He founded the DeLorean Motor Company with the aim of allowing his acclaimed visionary-ness to guide him to his own success. The company’s first (and as it turns out, only) vehicle was a stainless steel two-seater designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose credits included Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other such glorious machines. The DMC-12, so named because of its $12,000 list price, showed up as a prototype in the mid 70’s, but didn’t fly into production until 1981.

By then, things weren’t looking good. John had talked his buddies Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. into investing, and he’d centered his base of operations at a manufacturing plant in a suburb of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Production began in 1981, but the money was running low. Then in 1982, John DeLorean ran into some deeper troubles.

An FBI informant and one-time drug smuggler named James Hoffman called John and presented him with an investment opportunity to help out the struggling DeLorean Motor Company. The plan involved smuggling cocaine, laundering the money, and not asking too many questions. John, being somewhat smarter than your average desperate business-owner, agreed in principle, but he was balanced between wanting to flee the situation and worrying that his family might be harmed if he did. As it turns out, the whole thing was a set-up anyway, and John was snapped in cuffs.

Fortunately, proving in court that the entire affair was a case of police entrapment was a cinch, and John was acquitted. Unfortunately, the DeLorean Motor Company was in receivership by February of 1982, and the company shut down after producing only 9000 cars. Were it not for Robert Zemekis’ choice of a DMC-12 as the basis for Doc Brown’s time machine in Back To The Future, the gull-wing DeLoreans might have fizzled away as a forgotten footnote in automotive history.

John DeLorean passed away in 2005 at the age of 80. His legacy remains one of innovation and industry-baffling chutzpah, the likes of which we simply aren’t seeing anymore. We need another John DeLorean, someone who can shake things up and find his or her way into the A-list party crowd. Someone who can inspire us and let us know that brilliant, exciting minds are hard at work in the auto world. Someone who can make shopping for a new car fun again.

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