DeLorean by John Z. DeLorean with Ted Schwarz (Zondervan Books: $17.95; 349 pp.) : Hard Driving: My Years With John DeLorean by William Haddad (Random House: $17.95; 193 pp.)

The tale befits a TV soap opera. A poor young man from Detroit rises through the corporate ranks and into the executive suites of General Motors. He develops into a corporate "maverick," combining a flashy personal style with seeming political altruism. He becomes an international entrepreneur. He gets involved with sinister elements. His arrest is broadcast on national TV.

It is, of course, the controversial and complicated saga of John Z. DeLorean, now the subject of two books: a defensive autobiography by DeLorean and a strong indictment of alleged DeLorean chicanery by one of his former aides. Depending on which you choose to believe, DeLorean is either one of the world's most misunderstood visionaries, or a con man.

DeLorean, who says he's now embraced Christianity, admits to questionable motives in the past. For most of his life, he confesses, "I was a proud and arrogant phony . . . I was living a lie. I was an egomaniac out of control." William Haddad, a former executive of DeLorean's car company, concurs: "Watching John closely was like watching theater. Plot and dialogue were made up on the spot or, at best, the night before."

DeLorean's knack for improvisation seemed to have failed him three years ago, when he was arrested in Los Angeles on federal narcotics charges. At the time, he was struggling to keep his Belfast-based sports car company financially afloat. He tells us he was physically and emotionally exhausted, taking large quantities of barbiturates and heeding the advice of a fortuneteller named Sonja.

Despite his performance on undercover surveillance tapes (declaring that a suitcase filled with cocaine looked "better than gold") DeLorean and his lawyers won acquittal by persuading a jury that he had, in fact, been entrapped in the crime by government agents. And the record suggests the Justice Department was guilty of some outrageous behavior. But DeLorean's explanation of what he thought he was doing in that hotel room only raises new questions.

At one point, for example, DeLorean says he was "being pressured to invest in an illegal transaction involving some bad and dangerous people." He feared they might kill his daughter. But at another point, DeLorean wrote to his lawyer that, if successful in Los Angeles, "I will have induced organized crime to literally donate $10 million to reopen the Belfast plant--and when they figure it out they cannot do anything about it!"

Was DeLorean the frightened victim of calculating federal agents? Or a financially ambitious egocentric who thought he could hoodwink the mob? His book provides evidence of both.

William Haddad's "Hard Driving" ignores the cocaine case entirely and focuses instead on allegations that DeLorean siphoned more than $17 million of investors' money from his sports car company into Swiss bank accounts for his own use. Haddad, a former newspaper writer and political aide, joined DeLorean's venture in its formative stages and remained until DeLorean forced him out. "John never had intended to build an ethical car company," he charges. "It was a scam from beginning to end."

Haddad casts himself in the role of reluctant whistle-blower. He feels the car company could have succeeded, were it not for DeLorean. "For DeLorean there was no tomorrow," he says. "He was interested only in immediate goals." While overly detailed at points, Haddad's account is intriguing. The allegations are similar to those in a federal indictment now pending against DeLorean in Detroit.

DeLorean believes he will be "vindicated" of all the charges against him. And he hopes to avoid an "unfair" settlement with his company's creditors, even though he fears the British government (which provided huge subsidies) might actually forge documents that could be used against him. If all works out, he wants to resurrect the sports car. "I have been talking," he says, "with people who are supportive and share that dream." For DeLorean, one suspects, the soap opera may be far from over.

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