It was the automotive story for almost a decade: former GM superstar John DeLorean had set out to build his own high-tech sports car, only to end up in handcuffs. This week, we present the complete saga of the DeLorean Motor Company and the DeLorean DMC-12, a strange tale of grand ambition, political intrigue, and cocaine.
JOHN DELOREAN: THE METEOR FROM PONTIAC
John Z. DeLorean’s 12½-year career at Pontiac has become the stuff of legend. He joined the division as director of advanced engineering in 1956, playing a key role in that division’s rebirth under Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen and Elliot (Pete) Estes. DeLorean became assistant chief engineer in 1959 and chief engineer two years later, leading the development of the unusual “rope-drive” Tempest, Pontiac’s novel OHC six, and the immortal GTO, along with an impressive array of patents and technical innovations.
By the time he became general manager in 1965, Pontiac led the domestic industry in engineering, styling, and merchandising. Nearly all of the division’s many successes, from the sporty Firebird to the stylish Grand Prix, bore DeLorean’s fingerprints.
Along the way, DeLorean became one of the automotive press’s favorite executives. He cut a striking figure; he was 6’4″ (192 cm) tall, lanky and athletic, with looks that were alternately compared to Tyrone Power and Tom Jones. He was a bit of a bad boy, too: He spoke his mind far more than was customary for a Detroit exec and he was always being called on the carpet for some minor breach of corporate protocol. In a company known for gray flannel suits and stolid Republican values, DeLorean dressed like a GQ model, drove expensive foreign sports cars, and dated models and actresses half his age. In short, he was the ultimate fantasy figure for every underpaid automotive hack or working-class car nut in America.
Whatever DeLorean’s conflicts with GM’s conservative upper management — and there were many — no one could say the corporation didn’t reward results. DeLorean was only 40 when he became a GM vice president, the youngest general manager in the corporation’s history. Less than four years later, he was promoted to run Chevrolet, the largest and most important of GM’s automotive divisions. Three years after that, he became a group vice president, responsible for the entire car and truck group, with salary and bonuses totaling $650,000 a year and a $25,000 annual expense account. There was even talk that he would succeed Ed Cole as president of the corporation.
In April 1973, seemingly at the pinnacle of his success, DeLorean resigned. His own explanation was that he quit, frustrated with GM’s monotonous products and insular culture. Car and Driver reported in 1977 that there were rumors that his departure had not been entirely voluntary — that he had been in danger of termination for some unspecified offense — but no GM executive was ever willing to comment on the record. The industry and the press watched his exit with great interest, eager to see what he would do next.
By his own admission, DeLorean didn’t need to do anything. He was still drawing six-figure compensation from GM in the form of deferred bonuses and consulting fees and he had enough assets to maintain a comfortable lifestyle for himself, his adoptive son, and new wife Cristina Ferrare indefinitely, without ever having to work again. However, DeLorean was still relatively young, and no one expected him to remain idle for long.
DeLorean spent a year as president of the National Alliance of Businessmen and made vague noises about developing a line of travel trailers. By early 1974, however, his thoughts were turning back to the auto industry and the idea of developing a car of his own.
THE ETHICAL SPORTS CAR
Given DeLorean’s tastes in automobiles, which ran to the likes of the Maserati Ghibli, it was inevitable that he would set out to build his own sports car. He saw a viable niche between the Chevrolet Corvette and the Porsche 911: expensive enough to be profitable at small volumes, but not so expensive to compete directly with the high-end European exotics. DeLorean had tried several times to launch a new sports car at GM, first with the Pontiac Banshee (discussed in our articles on the Pontiac Fiero and OHC six), then with Chevrolet’s ill-fated mid-engine Corvette. On his own, he would finally have his chance.
The first problem was that his exit agreement included a non-compete clause. DeLorean apparently hoped that GM wouldn’t consider an expensive, limited-production sports car to be a threat to their business, but as soon as he began talking to dealers, GM terminated his bonus payments. In response, DeLorean commissioned Business Week editor J. Patrick Wright to co-author a scathing tell-all memoir, entitled On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant.
Previously, DeLorean’s public statements had been oddly ambivalent: frank and impolitic in one breath, studiously upholding the corporate party line in the next. Now, he was positioning himself as the ultimate insider rebel, challenging GM on everything from its minority hiring policies to its attitude toward safety; among other things, his book would include a condemnation of the controversial Chevrolet Corvair that would have gladdened the heart of Ralph Nader. (DeLorean got cold feet on the memoir shortly after its completion in the fall of 1975, but Wright opted to publish it himself four years later.)
If DeLorean was to be the consummate foe of Detroit hypocrisy and shortsightedness, his car would have to be the perfect exponent of DeLorean’s values. It would be sporty, since DeLorean’s reputation had been built on sporty cars, but it would also be rationally sized, durable, fuel efficient, and safe — qualities that the American auto industry had embraced only reluctantly. DeLorean’s would be the thinking man’s Supercar for the post-OPEC age. DeLorean called it “the ethical sports car.”
To engineer his new car, DeLorean hired a former colleague from Pontiac, Bill Collins, then leading the development of GM’s downsized 1977 full-size cars. For the exterior styling, he turned to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign, whose resume included the Maserati Bora and Merak, the Volkswagen Golf and Scirocco, and the Lotus Esprit. DeLorean specified that the car should have a mid-mounted engine, a plastic body, and stainless steel exterior panels. A target weight of only 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) would allow both sports-car performance and economy-car fuel economy. Despite its lightweight construction, the new car would have neatly integrated 10 mph (16 km/h) bumpers, with a bank of airbags providing 40 mph (64 km/h) barrier crash protection, far better than federal law required. The body would even be impervious to rust.
Early on, DeLorean called the new car the DSV, DeLorean Safety Vehicle, in part to secure an investment from the insurance company Allstate. The commercial failure of the Bricklin Safety Vehicle (SV-1) led him to deemphasize the safety aspect and by 1976, the car had been rechristened the DeLorean DMC-12.