Detroit’s ‘Kid Notorious’ was creative force behind GTO

Times Staff Writer

It was one of the most horrific crashes ever captured on film: The grainy, hidden-video footage of a sweaty John Z. DeLorean, Detroit dream maker and father of the Pontiac GTO, in 1982 wrangling a deal for a suitcase full of cocaine in a Los Angeles hotel room, as part of a fumbled bid to save his nearly bankrupt DeLorean Motor Co.

At a stroke, the career of one of Motown’s most brilliant and influential executives, an automotive auteur, was entombed in this single, ridiculous image: John Z., the man who would be blow king.

Though eventually acquitted, DeLorean would spend the next two decades fighting off charges and creditors associated with the collapse of his company (he is now retired and living in New Jersey). His pop culture legacy was secured by Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future” film trilogy, which starred DMC’s stainless-steel, gull-wing sports car as the time-surfing hot rod.

But long before the nose candy and Marty McFly, DeLorean was Detroit’s Kid Notorious.


If Detroit embodied the top-down, zipped-up psyche of corporate America in the 1950s and 1960s, DeLorean was Motown’s countercultural id. He was born in 1925, the son of a foundry worker at Ford, and eventually rose through the ranks of Chrysler, Packard and General Motors on the strength of his superb engineering talents and almost inhuman capacity for work. But DeLorean had issues. In a town that imposed a ruthless corporate conformity, he was insubordinate on a neuronal level.

While DeLorean was chief engineer for the Pontiac division, his rebellious cast of mind led him to approve -- in defiance of a GM edict against high-performance models -- the first GTO, a 1964 Tempest LeMans with a 389-cubic-inch engine. His GTO was a hit, ushering in the era of American muscle cars. Pontiac’s sales went through the roof.

The GTO put DeLorean on a steep corporate trajectory. In 1965, at age 40, he was promoted as Pontiac’s youngest general manager. In 1969, at 44, he was made the youngest general manager of the Chevrolet division. In 1972 DeLorean was put in charge of all of GM’s North American car and truck divisions. A year later, he quit GM.

With hindsight, the GTO seems to take on an almost metaphoric quality in the life of DeLorean. The name “GTO” -- Italian for gran turismo omologato, and referring to a road car approved for racing -- reflected the fact that DeLorean was hip to a cooler, more cosmopolitan world beyond the borders of Michigan, terra incognita to most Motown suits.

“John had a feeling for what was going on in the sports car world and in Europe, which none of us had,” says Jim Wangers, the marketing brains behind the GTO, who worked closely with DeLorean at Pontiac. (Ferrari had used the GTO name for its cars but had failed to secure the trademark.) “He said that’s what we’re going to call the car, and that was that.”

The success of the GTO seemed to empower the demons in DeLorean’s head. His keen appreciation of the youth market grew into a sordid, youth-obsessed narcissism. He divorced his first wife. He skirt-chased a succession of society ingenues and Tinseltown glamour queens, including Ursula Andress, Nancy Sinatra, Raquel Welch and Candice Bergen. He socialized with show-biz elites like Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson, both of whom later invested in DeLorean’s ill-fated DMC sports car venture based in Northern Ireland.

In 1968 he married actress-model Kelly Harmon, a woman 24 years his junior , divorced her and married, in 1973, a Vogue model named Cristina Ferrare, half his age.

DeLorean’s Hef-like escapades scandalized the corporate apparatchiks. He flouted other proprieties, as well. DeLorean was known to bomb around Detroit in Lamborghinis, De Tomasos and Maseratis at a time when driving such cars amounted to a minor scandal. The official dress code for executives meeting on GM’s 14th-floor corporate suite called for white shirts. When he was general manager of Pontiac, DeLorean delighted in wearing blue Oxford button-downs to meetings.

By the time he left GM in 1973, DeLorean was a bona fide fop, wearing scarves and flared trousers like a go-go Hollywood producer. He dyed his hair black and wore his sideburns long. He had a face-lift and a chin implant. He had become the Diva of Detroit.

The GTO had its own affinities for show business and, at times, seemed to be DeLorean’s occult familiar. Maj. Nelson (Larry Hagman) drove a GTO on the sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie.” The Dean Jeffries-built Monkeemobile on the sitcom “The Monkees” was based on a 1966 GTO convertible. A novelty song Wangers arranged to have made celebrating the car -- “GTO” by Ronny & the Daytonas -- was a fluke hit in 1963, going to No. 4 on the top 40 charts.

In 1969, Pontiac was looking for ways to pump up sales among young people in the face of almost certain price increases. A special committee was putting together another high-performance car, with the working name “ET,” which referred to drag racing’s “elapsed time.”

DeLorean disliked the name.

“Every time I turn on TV there’s some guy screaming ‘Here comes da judge, here comes da judge,’ ” Wangers recalls DeLorean saying. “Well, let’s give them the Judge!”

The name came from the TV show “Laugh-In” -- taped in Beautiful Downtown Burbank -- which turned “You bet your sweet bippy!” and “Sock it to me!” into pop culture chestnuts. One of the more memorable phrases to emerge was “Here comes da judge,” uttered by a periwigged Sammy Davis Jr. to Flip Wilson as the pair reprised a Pigmeat Markham routine.

The skit set back minstrel shows for years.

The Judge livery comprised flame-orange paint with swirling body graphics and “The Judge” written in modish script on the front GTO fenders and rear deck. The Judge also featured hood scoops, a rear-deck spoiler and a 400-cubic-inch Ram Air III engine, four-speed Hurst shifter, Rally II wheels and rally gauges. The Judge was to fuel economy what carpet-bombing was to shuttle diplomacy.

The Judge package had a very brief run (1969-71), and in 1974, in the wake of the first Arab oil embargo, Pontiac killed off the GTO altogether. But among gearheads the limited-edition GTO Judge attained a sort of iconic status as the epitome of mutant muscle cars. A pristine ’69 Judge hardtop with an optional Ram Air IV engine that sold for about $3,500 new is worth more than $50,000 today.

The GTO Judge flickered briefly in the pop culture firmament in 1993, in the Richard Linklater film “Dazed and Confused.” The film’s use of the GTO Judge seems intended to underscore the arrested development of the film’s incorrigible stoner character (it was set in 1976). Keen-eyed aficionados might have noticed that the car in the film was actually a replica. A genuine Judge would have cost far more than Linklater’s indie production could afford.

As the decades pass, the GTO continues to fascinate Hollywood. Last year’s action film “XXX” paired Vin Diesel with a 1967 GTO convertible. In a marketing tie-in worthy of Wangers at his best, next year’s “XXX” sequel will feature the new Australian-built GTO.

It was always a car by renegades, for renegades.