With a brushed stainless-steel body, gull-wings and — once it hit 88mph — the ability to travel through time, the DeLorean is one of the most celebrated cars in history. For its creator, it was a professional and personal disaster.
John DeLorean: the maverick man who created a maverick car
This maverick car came from a maverick man. John Zachary DeLorean’s career was exceptional. Born in 1925, he would become, at the age of 42, the youngest person ever to head a division of General Motors.
Such a position was no surprise to those who had been following DeLorean’s work. In 1964 he had been almost single-handedly responsible for the massive-selling Pontiac GTO — now seen as the first “muscle car.” The GTO was DeLorean’s personal concept and he oversaw every element of its engineering and marketing.
But what set DeLorean apart was not just his success, his skills, or relative youth — it was his unconventionality in a very conventional industry. This was a businessman who broke the rules. In sideburns and open neck shirts, he looked more like a country-rock singer than an auto exec. DeLorean was seen hanging out with celebrities like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. Indeed, his own celebrity accelerated almost as fast as his Pontiac.
But this was a problem for General Motors. While DeLorean clearly knew how to create a great car, conservative voices within GM couldn’t bear him. Based on results lone, he seemed destined to become President of the company — and this was too much. In 1973, he left GM to form the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC).
DeLorean Motor Company had a slow start
Did DeLorean jump, or was he pushed? He wasn’t saying, and in fact said very little at all for the rest of the 1970s. Plagued by delays and his own creative approach, DeLorean had little to present to the world for seven years. Then, suddenly, in 1980, came news of the DeLorean vehicle.
Some 9,000 of these unique machines rolled out of the Northern Ireland factory including, as advertised in American Express magazine, 100 plated entirely in gold, and retailing at $85,000. Four were sold.
And that was not untypical. The critics and the public were lukewarm to what they saw. The standard model seemed underpowered for the price (about $70,000 in contemporary cash), and the sales did not come. By February 1982, only half of DeLorean’s cars had been purchased. With investment of $175 million to recoup, DeLorean was in dire straits and facing liquidation, with personal debts of $17 million.
Financing with cocaine
Salvation, of a sort, seemed to come in 1982, in the shape of one James Hoffman, a career criminal and FBI informer, and a former neighbor of DeLorean. DeLorean was persuaded by Hoffman to finance a scheme to sell 220 lbs of cocaine with a street value of $24 million. DeLorean was arrested and charged — but, as a man with no criminal record and financially vulnerable, he successfully pleaded a defense of FBI entrapment, and was acquitted in 1984.
Which was all well and good, but the damage was very much done. The factory and company were liquidated, and so was DeLorean’s reputation. As he put it at his acquittal press conference, “Would you buy a used car from me?”
In 1999, he went bankrupt — despite having taken out a patent for a monorail. (It was never built.) His 434-acre New Jersey estate was bought by Donald Trump and turned into a golf course. John DeLorean died in 2005, at age 80. On his tombstone is a carving of his iconic machine, its gull wings wide open.