Flying cars & Cocaine: The unbelievable story of John DeLorean
It’s recently been announced that a movie about the life of John DeLorean is coming later this year, starring none other than Alec Baldwin as the man himself. Frankly, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to make a film about him, because the rise and fall of DeLorean is quite simply one of the most incredible stories from the world of motoring. It's a tale of American entrepreneurship, innovation and… large amounts of cocaine. If you don’t know his story, here’s a short version to get you excited for the movie.
Who is John DeLorean?
DeLorean was born in 1925 in Detroit, Michigan. his childhood was one of poverty and abuse. His father worked most of his life at Ford, and it always seemed likely that John would follow him into the motor industry. But unlike his father, whose poor English and problems with alcohol prevented him from ever progressing beyond the factory floor, John had big dreams.
In the first few years of his career he quickly ascended the ranks, earning a reputation along the way as a young maverick. In 1964, he dropped a 6.4-litre V8 engine into a Pontiac Tempest, and the GTO - arguably America’s first true muscle car - was born. This innovation, combined with his suave public persona, led to John Delorean becoming the poster boy for the future of the American motor industry. In a world run by men in bland suits who played it safe, he was a rockstar: a smooth talker and risk taker, with flash jewellery and a supermodel wife. He was hailed as the man who would bring American motorcars up to speed with their European rivals.
In the subsequent years, DeLorean became the youngest ever vice-president of General Motors. Had he waited a little longer, he could have been running the company in no time, but John had other ideas. He wanted to launch his own car brand and create something revolutionary. He left his position at GM, and in 1973, founded the DeLorean Motor Company. After several million pounds worth of incentivisation from the UK Government, he decided to open his factory in Northern Ireland, and work soon began on DMC’s first car.
DeLorean used his star power to recruit the biggest names in the industry onto his project. Italian design legend Giorgetto Giugiaro was placed in charge of the body, and the engineering was assigned to Colin Chapman of Lotus. DeLorean wanted his car to look like it was from the future, and be completely impervious to rust, which led to the iconic stainless steel body panels and space-age gullwing doors. With the likes of Giugiaro and Chapman onboard, the DeLorean could have been a truly special car - but its development was hampered by three major logistical issues:
1) Money. Despite high-profile investors, the company was haemorrhaging money from the second it opened its doors. The car’s unusual design made it hugely expensive to develop. Its peculiar shape meant it required a bespoke engine (which ended up being an underwhelming 130bhp V6) and even the fancy doors needed elaborate gas struts which in turn required extensive R&D.
2) Time. DeLorean was working to an impossibly tight schedule, made even tighter by how fast the money was drying up. The time between the DMC-12 project beginning and the finished car getting road-registered was just 28 months - a record that still stands. This meant many corners had to be cut along the way, and factory staff were under-trained and over-worked.
3) Conflict. The car’s development took place during the height of the troubles between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland. One night, a portion of the factory was destroyed by a fire bomb, and all the original engineering sketches were lost. What’s more, large parts of the factory floor often had to be shared with the army, who used it as a base. Workers were forced to make do with the remaining space and keep working.
Finally, In 1981, the first DMC DeLoreans rolled off the factory floor and were shipped to the US - and they were terrible. They were so hastily assembled that John DeLorean was forced to open “Quality Assurance Centres” in the USA, where the early cars were essentially rebuilt from the ground up at enormous cost to the company. To give an idea of how problematic the early models were, over the course of the car’s two year production run, 3000 significant changes were made to the design.
And yet - despite the shoddy build quality and the financial trouble the company found itself in, the DeLorean was a hit. The combination of John’s celebrity status and the car’s outrageous styling was enough to distract from the hopeless performance, and DeLoreans flew out of dealerships. In its first 6 months of production, DeLorean outsold Porsche and Mercedes in the US.
And then, quite suddenly, it all ended. Two years into production, John Delorean had run out of funding, and in a last ditch effort to keep his company afloat, he resorted to desperate measures. In October 1982, DeLorean was arrested in a Los Angeles hotel room, in possession of over $100 million worth of cocaine. It’s believed he had made an agreement with international traffickers to transport the drugs in exchange for financial backing.
It was game over for the Delorean Motor Company. Two years after his arrest, John was found innocent of all charges, and a jury agreed that he had been the victim of entrapment - but it didn’t matter. His empire had been built on his reputation - and innocent or not, his reputation was destroyed. The Delorean Motor Company filed for bankruptcy, and never made another car.
Then, in 1985 a film called Back To The Future used a DeLorean DMC-12 as its hero car, immortalised the defunct manufacturer and its sole creation. To most, the DeLorean is simply known as ‘that car from back to the future’, but those who know its origin appreciate that the true story of DeLorean is even more fantastical.