DeLorean: a vision clouded by vanity

Times Staff Writer

The death of John Z. DeLorean on Saturday put me in mind of a 15th century English epitaph: “His life was a well-acted story of himself.” Talk about drama: The love-starved son of an alcoholic foundry worker, DeLorean rose on his native intellect and fierce energy to lead first General Motors’ Pontiac division -- credited with cars such as the GTO and Grand Prix -- beginning in 1965, then the Chevrolet division (starting in 1969). In 1972, he attained the vice-presidency of GM in record time. If one were to storyboard this moment in the inevitable DeLorean bio-pic, the camera would pull out on the empty, expectant chair of GM’s presidency.

In true cinematic fashion, it was not to be. DeLorean and GM parted ways in 1973, both to their respective calamities. GM spent the following decades losing market share and botching, in historic fashion, its advantage as the world’s largest car company.

DeLorean, the last of the automotive wildcatters, started a sports car company in Ireland and, when the business went sour, attempted to raise capital in the cocaine market. Allegedly.

Then the dark montage: the indictments and acquittals; the born-again Christianity; the divorce from Christina Ferrare; the decades-long descent into penury. Cut to the slowly rising crane shot as, in 2000, trucks haul off antiques from his foreclosed hermitage in Bedminster, N.J.


There are two versions of DeLorean’s fate at GM, both seemingly true and both instructive. In the first, DeLorean wearies of GM’s dull dynasticism and engineering by ledger sheet and, like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, quits rather than compromise. The second: DeLorean was a fop and a fool whose personal excesses and vanity -- the plastic surgery, the Carnaby Street mod togs, the swinging singles pads, the half-his-age wives and girlfriends -- were so repellent that, when he threatened to resign in a tantrum, the GM board let him.

What if DeLorean and GM had reconciled?

It certainly seems now they needed each other. GM needed the bold strokes of an unconventional thinker such as DeLorean. He needed the coat-and-tie discipline of the 14th floor. If the collapse of the DeLorean Motor Co. proves anything, it’s that the bean-counters have their place.

As for the DeLorean DMC-12, built in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, between 1980-82 -- a car made famous by Robert Zemekis’ “Back to the Future” movies -- it was an excellent concept foiled by compromise. The design, by Giorgetto Giugiaro, is a classic ax-head-shaped exotic, with handsome gull-wing doors and a brushed stainless steel body, a street presence that to this day turns heads. It might have been a better car had it not been based on an off-the-shelf chassis of the Lotus Esprit, courtesy of Lotus boss Colin Chapman; its notorious electrical problems might have been sorted out if the money-strapped company had done any testing.

With the DMC-12, DeLorean had in mind an “ethical sports car”: a car that would be fun to drive, practical, safe, offer good fuel efficiency and value (originally, he wanted the car to sell for $12,000 but eventually the price rose to $25,000). And -- as the stainless steel body suggests -- he wanted it to last a long time. He argued that the endless churn of automotive obsolescence was a waste of money and resources.

In this respect, DeLorean was one of the rare Detroit auto executives who -- along with futurists such as Buckminster Fuller and Norman Bel Geddes -- saw the automobile as part of a progressive vision of the world, where transportation was framed by social and environmental imperatives. Ironically, it is these very imperatives -- and the threat of $3 per gallon gasoline -- that are playing havoc with American automakers now.

What a shame. DeLorean enters history not as a visionary but as an arrogant, amoral hipster, a victim of his own toxic vanity.

Indeed, DeLorean’s pop culture epitaph is not carved in stone but captured on grainy videotape from an FBI camera hidden in a room in the Sheraton Plaza La Reina Hotel in Los Angeles in 1982, when DeLorean pronounces the cocaine “better than gold.” Joe Eszterhas himself could not have written a more lurid and ridiculous line.

Automotive critic Dan Neil

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