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.
By the time DeLorean became the division’s 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 had become a favorite of the automotive press. Tall (6’4″/192 cm), lanky, and athletic, he was a striking figure, with an ever-fashionable wardrobe and looks that were variously compared to Tyrone Power and Tom Jones. In a company known for gray flannel suits and stolid Republican values, he was a bit of a bad boy: more outspoken than was customary for a Detroit executive, often called on the carpet for some minor breach of corporate protocol, and prone to raising conservative eyebrows by driving expensive foreign sports cars and dating (and eventually marrying) models and actresses half his age. In short, he was perhaps 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 corporate culture. Afterward, there were rumors that his departure had not been entirely voluntary, but none of these whispered allegations was ever substantiated. The industry and the motoring press watched DeLorean’s exit with great interest, eager to see what he would do next.
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