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Maker of Futuristic Car Lived Fast Life

Times Staff Writer

John Zachary DeLorean, the dashing former General Motors executive whose flamboyant lifestyle faded into obscurity after charges that he tried to use drug money to salvage his own fledgling DeLorean Motor Co., has died. He was 80.

DeLorean, who created the gull-winged car adapted as Michael J. Fox’s time-traveling vehicle in the “Back to the Future” films of the 1980s and ‘90s, died Saturday at Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J., of complications from a recent stroke, a funeral home spokesman said.

The innovative carmaker -- tall, handsome, charismatic, known for his flashy clothes, his lavish tastes and the beautiful women who accompanied him -- was acquitted in 1984 of drug and conspiracy charges, but his DeLorean Motor Co. had been fatally wounded.

Despite being videotaped in the act of allegedly buying cocaine -- and pronouncing it “better than gold” -- DeLorean never admitted guilt in the case that led to his arrest in a Los Angeles hotel room Oct. 19, 1982.

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He said he was the victim of a government frame-up by drug agents and prosecutors bent on self-promotion, and the jury apparently agreed with him.

Howard L. Weitzman, the Los Angeles attorney who successfully defended DeLorean in the drug case and other litigation, described DeLorean on Sunday as “a very complicated individual who was willing to play close to the edge.

“He was smart, innovative, and a gambler,” Weitzman said, reiterating that DeLorean was innocent of the drug charges in California. “His arrogance and entitlement clouded his judgment.... I’ve represented many people over the years, but John DeLorean had one of the most warped views of right and wrong.”

DeLorean, who said he became a born-again Christian during the months he awaited trial, did concede that, over the years, there were some things he had done wrong.

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“I think my ultimate sin -- and it was really terrible -- was that I had this insatiable pride,” he told journalist Robert Scheer in a Playboy magazine interview about two years after the acquittal. “Looking back at it, I see that I had an arrogance that was beyond that of any other human being alive.”

Few debated that point. But if there was pride, it was based, at least in part, on the remarkable achievements of a man from humble beginnings.

Born in Detroit to immigrant parents in January 1925, DeLorean was reared in a working-class neighborhood about a mile from the Ford Motor Co. plant where his father, an abusive alcoholic, was a foundry worker and a union organizer.

Success in elementary school won DeLorean admission to a high school for gifted students, where he did so well that he was awarded a scholarship to the Lawrence Institute of Technology, a college in Detroit.

After time out for brief and unremarkable stateside military service during World War II, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Lawrence and the Chrysler Institute, and found work as an engineer, first with the Packard Motor Car Co. and then with General Motors.

It was at GM that DeLorean’s career -- and his reputation for creative thinking and bold marketing -- began to soar.

In 1961, he was named chief engineer at GM’s Pontiac Division, eventually holding more than 100 patents for innovative designs. His introduction of two “muscle cars” -- the GTO and the Firebird -- that proved enormously popular with young buyers led to his being named head of the division in 1965.

At that point, DeLorean’s lifestyle still conformed to GM’s image of an executive: He cut his hair short, wore conservative three-piece suits and began putting on weight. He and his wife, the former Elizabeth Higgins, belonged to the right country club and attended the right social functions.

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But all that began to change.

DeLorean divorced his wife, underwent cosmetic surgery, let his hair grow, dyed it to cover the gray, went on a diet, abandoned the button-down look for monogrammed shirts with plunging necklines and -- most rebellious of all -- drove a Maserati instead of a Corvette.

The news media lapped it all up, especially his dates with such fabled beauties as Candice Bergen and Ursula Andress.

In 1969, after a brief courtship, he married model Kelly Harmon, the stunningly attractive daughter of University of Michigan football hero Tom Harmon. DeLorean was 44 at the time; his bride was 20.

On GM’s top perch -- the hallowed 14th floor of the executive headquarters in Detroit -- DeLorean was ruffling feathers. His lifestyle was bad enough, but his advocacy of major changes at GM, such as abandoning some of the big cars in favor of smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, was almost unbearable.

But despite opposition at some of the highest levels, DeLorean’s ascendancy at GM continued. His introduction of the Monte Carlo model after being named head of the Chevrolet Division in 1969 enriched GM’s coffers. And, as the popularity of Volkswagen’s Beetle was fast demonstrating, his advocacy of smaller cars had been right on the money.

Within a few years, he was promoted again, to chief of GM’s truck and car division, with the then-awesome salary of more than $600,000 a year.

Nonetheless, in April 1972, as industry pundits were beginning to talk about him as the next president of GM -- the largest corporation in the world -- DeLorean resigned.

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“I realized I would never be happy in the headquarters environment,” he said later. “I wasn’t a team player.”

DeLorean’s marriage to Harmon had been unraveling, and it was about then that he met another beauty -- model Cristina Ferrare, a companion of millionaire electronics executive Fletcher Jones.

In November 1972, Jones was killed in a plane crash near his sprawling ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Ferrare then became DeLorean’s companion.

In an autobiography, coauthored with writer Ted Schwartz, DeLorean said he told Ferrare: “You’re a very cute girl, like a painting on the wall. Right now, you’re hanging on my wall, but some other time, you might be hanging on someone else’s wall.”

“I enjoy the company of attractive women,” he explained in his book, adding with characteristic self-assurance: “I’ve always had a tendency to associate with women who were dramatically less educated than I.”

Despite what DeLorean perceived as an unequal partnership, Ferrare moved in with him. Two months later, with his divorce from his second wife completed, DeLorean and Ferrare were married. He was 48; she was 22.

Whatever their differences, the newlyweds’ life was opulent. They shared four homes that included a 434-acre estate in the exclusive fox-hunting country of Bedminster Township, N.J. They dined at Maxim’s, stayed at the Savoy and hobnobbed with the powerful and the famous.

Ferrare once celebrated their status on a needlepoint pillow: “Nouveau is better than not Riche at all.”

By the end of 1973, DeLorean had decided to set up a network of companies to design, manufacture and market a sports car in his own image: sleek, fast and glamorous. It would be called -- naturally -- the DeLorean.

DeLorean was at his persuasive best in those days. He got the British government to invest more than $140 million in the venture in hopes of stimulating the economy in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where a modern plant was constructed. American investors put up another $31 million -- among them entertainers Johnny Carson, who contributed $500,000, and Sammy Davis Jr., who coughed up $150,000.

The rear-engine, gull-winged stainless-steel car that emerged in 1981 was well-received and developed a cult following, which helped propel it into a prominent role in the “Back to the Future” films.

But the $25,000 price tag was a good bit higher at the time than that of the principal competition: GM’s Corvette. The factory produced about 8,900 cars in three years, John Truscott, membership director of the DeLorean Owners Assn., estimated for Associated Press. And many of those went unsold.

Short of cash, DeLorean asked the British government for another $30 million. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, already under fire for the earlier investment, turned him down.

In February 1982, the British government declared the DeLorean Motor Co. insolvent and appointed a receiver to take over the firm.

“I began to spend every waking moment seeking investors,” DeLorean wrote. “I could not afford to ignore anyone.”

One of those he chose not to ignore was James Hoffman, a sometime drug smuggler, convicted perjurer and admitted tax evader who lived near DeLorean’s home in rural San Diego County. Hoffman would become a paid informant for the FBI.

On Oct. 19, 1982, under the unblinking eye of a hidden video camera, DeLorean was arrested by FBI agents at the Sheraton Plaza La Reina Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. Agents said he was part of a scheme to shore up the sagging finances of his company by buying -- and then reselling, at enormous profit -- 220 pounds of cocaine from Colombia.

Two associates in the purported deal -- Stephen Lee Arrington and William Hetrick -- were arrested elsewhere.

Videotapes made moments before DeLorean’s arrest show him briefly examining 25 kilograms of cocaine and saying, with a laugh, “It’s better than gold.” He joins in a champagne toast, commenting, “I think it’s going to be wonderful for everybody. To a lot of success for everybody.”

Another tape, made at a hotel in Washington, shows a conversation between DeLorean and Hoffman, during which DeLorean says, “I’m relying on you saying that there’s no way of connecting me to this thing.”

“You’re not going to be handling product,” Hoffman says.

“I’m going to be a long way away,” DeLorean replies.

Hoffman says DeLorean can back out if he’s not comfortable with the deal.

“I want to proceed,” DeLorean replies.

Arrington and Hetrick both pleaded guilty in the case and received prison sentences -- five years for Arrington, 10 for Hetrick. DeLorean pleaded not guilty.

His trial began in Los Angeles on April 18, 1984.

During 12 weeks of testimony, prosecutors relied heavily on the videotapes. Hoffman, the prosecution’s star witness, was on the stand for 18 days, testifying that DeLorean had suggested a drug deal to save his failing company.

To counter the accusations of the prosecution, defense attorneys put the government on trial.

The defense, led by attorney Weitzman, contended that DeLorean had been conned by a lying government informant and enticed by prospects of big investments in his dying company. Weitzman said government agents lied, destroyed crucial notes, backdated documents and withheld important evidence.

Weitzman’s team said those same agents, blinded by publicity and the prospects of promotion, manufactured their case against the defendant by choreographing the videotapes, talking about narcotics, choosing a smuggler and providing much of the money for the scheme.

Hoffman was branded as an admitted felon, perjurer and con man who had sold his services to the government to escape prison and then lied on the witness stand.

The defense attorneys admitted that DeLorean had used poor judgment in his desperate efforts to save his company, but they said he committed no crime. And they said that if the jury thought he had committed a crime, he still should be acquitted because he had been entrapped by government agents who used deceit and the power of the government to ensnare him.

DeLorean never took the stand.

On Aug. 16, 1984, after 29 hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted him on all counts.

One juror said entrapment was the key.

“The way government agents acted in this case was not appropriate,” the juror said.

In magazine interviews months later, other jurors called Hoffman a “shabby creep” and said he was “totally unbelievable” on the stand. But some of the jurors felt that, despite the unanimous verdict in his favor, DeLorean was morally culpable.

Juror Harry Graves objected to DeLorean’s claim that the panel had found him innocent.

“I do not believe it was ‘innocent,’ ” Graves said. “It was ‘not guilty.’ ”

Regardless of jurors’ post-trial comments, Weitzman reiterated Sunday to The Times that DeLorean “really was innocent. He did not commit the crime.”

Two months later, Ferrare, who during the trial had stood publicly by her man, filed for divorce. She later fulfilled DeLorean’s prophesy and married another wealthy man -- entertainment executive Tony Thomopolous.

DeLorean retreated to the imposing two-story Georgian mansion on his estate in Somerset County, N.J., and began a protracted and ultimately futile battle to fend off creditors.

On top of what amounted to more than $4.7 million in unpaid legal bills, he was unable to keep up payments on the estate -- the last of his real estate holdings -- eventually owing the mortgage holder, Merrill Lynch Equity Management Inc., more than $9.7 million.

“I can’t pay them,” he told a reporter in 1998. “I have nothing.”

But if John DeLorean had nothing, he didn’t live that way.

The estate, which included acres of manicured lawn, a dozen handsome outbuildings, a helicopter pad, several ponds and a stable full of expensive cars, was splendidly maintained. The mansion was furnished with antiques.

No one knew quite how he managed it, but there were accusations -- never proved -- that DeLorean had siphoned off some of the money provided by the British government. He denied it.

Weitzman successfully defended DeLorean in one Detroit fraud case in 1986 in which DeLorean was accused of stealing $17.5 million from the DeLorean partnership that funded the car company. The lawyer said Sunday that DeLorean “was lucky to be acquitted in the fraud case in Detroit.

“If I pulled off any miracles,” the lawyer said, “that was the miracle.”

Weitzman said that after that acquittal, DeLorean “was never quite the same. He turned out to be ungrateful for the help he received and blamed others for his plight.”

DeLorean talked repeatedly about starting another company to build “a radical new car,” but mostly kept to himself in his later years.

In the fall of 1999, his mounting debts forced him to declare bankruptcy. In January 2000, a federal judge approved the sale of the Bedminster estate to a golf course developer for $15.25 million. All of the money went to DeLorean’s creditors.

A few weeks later, DeLorean watched in silence as vans hauled away the furnishings, most of which also were sold to satisfy outstanding debts.

In 2000, DeLorean started a new company, DeLoreanTime, to market watches.

He had been living in an apartment in Bedminster, N.J., and gave his final interview last Thursday, the day he suffered the stroke, when he spoke by phone with Peter Robison of Bloomberg News.

Interviewed about his former employer GM, a jocular, strong-voiced DeLorean told Robison: “When I was with GM, they had 50% of the industry. Now they’re down to probably 20% when you consider the prices of the vehicles they’re selling. It’s a shame. And GM is so important to America, it’s a crime.”

DeLorean said he doubted GM’s decline could be stopped but added, “There’s one or two ways they could make it, but they’re both long shots. If they want to know [how], they have to pay me.”

DeLorean is survived by his wife, Sally Baldwin DeLorean; son, Zachary Tavio DeLorean; daughters, Kathryn Ann DeLorean and Sheila Baldwin DeLorean; three brothers; several nieces and nephews; and two grandchildren.

Private burial is scheduled for Thursday in Troy, Mich.


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