- John DeLorean and his wife, Christina. (Source: BBC)

The Story of John DeLorean - Falling from Grace

From being a prominent name in the industry to getting involved in one of the biggest automotive scandals in history

1y ago

John DeLorean is regarded as one of the biggest players in the American automotive industry. He is an engineer, inventor, and a well-known executive thanks to his contributions at General Motors. To many, he is the man who sparked the horsepower wars in the United States with his first brainchild, the legendary Pontiac GTO.

DeLorean was one of the youngest members of the managing board of General Motors and had big plans for the future. He broke away from General Motors to start his own company in 1973. However, thanks to conditions far from favorable, his lifelong dream began to look more like a nightmare. He didn't want all his efforts to crumble down in pieces, so he was willing to do anything to keep his company afloat.

And I mean "get involved in a drug scandal for some financial security" anything...​

Early Life

J​ohn DeLorean next to his DMC-12. (Source: Driving.ca)

J​ohn DeLorean next to his DMC-12. (Source: Driving.ca)

John DeLorean was born on January 6, 1925, in Detroit, Michigan. His parents were Austrian-Hungarian citizens who emigrated to the United States to get away from the war.

​His father found employment at the Ford Motor Company factory near Highland Park. He always struggled to get higher pay because of his immigrant status, insufficient education, and lack of English. He also had a part-time job as a carpenter. His mother was also an experienced worker in the American automotive industry. She worked at the Carboloy Products Division of GM and did whatever she can to support her family.

DeLorean’s home life wasn’t great, as his father was a violent person. His mother would usually tolerate her husband’s rough behavior but would move to her sister's house in Los Angeles with DeLorean and his siblings when things got out of hand. In 1942, his parents divorced. He became estranged from his father, who moved into a boarding house and became a drug addict.


T​he Lawrence Institue of Technology library. (Source: Flickr, Lawrence Institiue of Technology)

T​he Lawrence Institue of Technology library. (Source: Flickr, Lawrence Institiue of Technology)

J​ohn DeLorean attended public schooling in Detroit. He was a bright student and graduated as an honor student. He enrolled in Cass Technical High School and signed up for the electrical curriculum. In his own words, he found it 'exhilarating' and graduated as an honor student once more.

Alongside his stellar academic record, he also had some musical talent, and they would be vital in his curriculum vitae. He got accepted into the Lawrence Institute of Technology in Highland Park, Detroit. Many of the big three’s heads of research and development came from Lawrence. The big three were also growing rapidly as the American auto industry blew up, so they were desperate to find skilled workers as soon as possible. The roads ahead were paved with gold for DeLorean. A​t Lawrence, he excelled in his studies of industrial engineering and was elected to enter into the school’s honor society.

However, World War II came about. All companies shifted from focusing on consumers to support the war effort. The U.S Army needed many young troops as soon as possible, so many dropped their education and went to war. DeLorean was one of them, serving three years in the U.S Army and receiving an honorable discharge.

A​fter The War

J​ohn DeLorean next to the Chevrolet Vega

J​ohn DeLorean next to the Chevrolet Vega

After the war had ended, DeLorean’s family was in poor economic condition, so he worked as a draftsman for the Public Lighting Company to help support his family. After their financial circumstances improved, he returned to Lawrence and finished his degree. While in college, he worked part-time at Chrysler and a local body shop. He graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering.

Instead of immediately jumping onto the automotive industry, DeLorean sold life insurance for a while and found it, in his own words, well, boring. He began his career in the automotive industry after getting hired into the Factory Equipment Corporation. DeLorean stated in his autobiography that he only sold life insurance to improve his communication skills.

W​hile DeLorean worked at the Factory Equipment Corporation, a foreman at Chrysler recommended him to apply for a position there. The company ran an educational facility for fresh graduates called the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. Over there, DeLorean was able to further advance in his education and gain firsthand experience at the same time.

DeLorean graduated the Chrysler Institute with a master’s degree in Automotive Engineering, and immediately joined Chrysler’s engineering team shortly after. He also attended the Detroit College of law, not graduating, and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business for his MBA degree in 1957.

P​ackard Motor Company

John DeLorean. (Source: Associated Press)

John DeLorean. (Source: Associated Press)

John DeLorean only worked for under a year at Chrysler. He moved to the Packard Motor Company after being offered a hefty annual salary of $14,000, or $131,102 adjusted for inflation. While at Packard, DeLorean quickly gained the attention of company executives, including his supervisor, Forest McFarland, a well-respected engineer at the Packard Motor Company. His improvements to the Ultramatic transmission landed him his fame, adding an improved torque converter and dual-drive ranges.

However, Packard was unwilling to adapt to the market, still relying on producing high-end luxury cars instead of mainstream and affordable cars for the middle class. As a result, the company went into financial turmoil when DeLorean joined. However, the company's ethos of precise and high-quality manufacturing served positive for him, as it increased his attention to engineering detail.

Despite turning a profit, Packard still couldn't keep up with rival manufacturers such as General Motors and Ford, as their sales figures were running circles around Packard's. The company proposed to merge with the Studebaker Corporation, but the deal never went past the discussion phase. DeLorean briefly considered staying at Packard until he received a call that would change his career forever.

General Motors

John DeLorean and the Pontiac GTO. (Source: www.influx.co.uk)

John DeLorean and the Pontiac GTO. (Source: www.influx.co.uk)

While he worked in Packard, DeLorean received an offer from General Motors to work for them. He accepted the deal and was put in Pontiac as the assistant to the chief engineer. He quickly bonded with Semon Knudsen, son of GM's former president. DeLorean filed many patents and developed many innovations for the company. In 1961, he was promoted to the position of chief engineer.

However, DeLorean also worked in the shadows without the knowledge of any GM executives. GM placed an internal ban on racing to maintain its #3 sales spot. All technologies developed for the track were suddenly shifted and placed into road cars. What came out of that was possibly DeLorean's biggest contribution to General Motors, or even to the entire industry, the Pontiac GTO.

The Pontiac GTO

The Pontiac GTO. (Source: Hagerty)

The Pontiac GTO. (Source: Hagerty)

The Pontiac GTO started a renaissance in the company. Pontiac's identity completely changed, becoming known as GM's performance brand rather than being just a bigger Chevrolet. DeLorean was credited for conceptualizing and creating 'the first muscle car' along with its massive success in the market.

At first, the Pontiac GTO was offered as an option package for the already existing Pontiac LeMans. This package included a 6.4-liter V8 engine producing 325 horsepower, paired to a four-barrel carburetor and a floor-shifted three-speed manual with a Hurst shifter. Cosmetic enhances included a dual-exhaust and chromed valve covers. In 1966, the GTO was sold as a whole new model. Its styling was improved, giving the car its iconic "Coke-bottle look" by raising its rear fender lines. The engine offers remained the same from the GTO package before 1966.

Thanks to the GTO’s success, DeLorean managed to rise up to Pontiac’s head of operations at the age of 40, making him the youngest division head at GM. He had big plans for the company. Unfortunately, his circumstances weren’t in his favor. There was an undue amount of infighting, and several of Pontiac’s marketing team were met with resistance. Not only that, but Ed Cole, CEO of GM at the time, decided to ban multiple carburetors, something Pontiac holds dear.

T​he Pontiac Firebird

T​he Pontiac Firebird. (Source: Bring a Trailer)

T​he Pontiac Firebird. (Source: Bring a Trailer)

​In the late 1960s, Ford was dominating the pony car market with the Mustang, and GM didn’t have anything to compete with it. DeLorean proposed to GM management to offer a smaller version of the Pontiac Banshee show car to compete with the Mustang, but his initial design was rejected out of fear that the proposed car would cannibalize sales of the Corvette.

D​eLorean was instead told to work with the current Camaro design, only being able to make changes to the front and rear of the car, even using the same fenders. The only major difference the new car had with the Camaro was its suspension, as it had a different front and rear setup.

I​n 1967, the Pontiac Firebird was released, sharing the characteristic Coke bottle styling with its sibling, the Chevrolet Camaro. The car was offered in a two-door hardtop and a convertible on release. The base car included a Pontiac 3.8-liter SOHC inline-six, fitted with a single-barrel carburetor rated at 165 horsepower. Most buyers opted for one of the three V8 models. Options included a 5.3-liter with a two-barrel carburetor producing 250 horsepower, the four-barrel high-output engine producing 285 horsepower, or the 325-horsepower engine from the GTO.

O​ther developments at Pontiac

T​he 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix. (Source: Mecum Auctions)

T​he 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix. (Source: Mecum Auctions)

​After the success of the Firebird, DeLorean decided to develop an all-new version of the Pontiac Grand Prix, a full-sized luxury car. He envisioned an all-new model with a distinct design, combined with parts sourced from mid-sized Pontiac A-body models such as the Tempest, Le Mans, and GTO.

However, DeLorean ran into a problem. Pontiac couldn't finance the new car by themselves. To get around the cash bottleneck, he went to his former boss, Pete Estes, and proposed that he would contribute a sum of his funds to develop the new car. There was a small window of time for exclusivity between the development of the new car and the release of its sibling, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

In 1969, Pontiac unveiled the Grand Prix. It featured a sharp, distinct design, most notably its 6-foot (1.8 meter) hood. The interior featured a wraparound cockpit-style instrument panel with the driver in mind. The Grand Prix served as a sportier alternative to well-established rivals like the Ford Thunderbird, Lincoln Continental, and Buick Riviera.

While at Pontiac, DeLorean lived the life. He enjoyed the freedom and fame that hs position landed him, traveling to faraway places around the world to attend company events. His frequent public appearances solidified his image as a "rebel" businessman with his youthful personality. Despite GM experiencing profit declines, Pontiac remained profitable under DeLorean's leadership.

It was only a matter of time before DeLorean got promoted to head of GM's flagship brand, Chevrolet.


John DeLorean. (Source: Autoblog.com)

John DeLorean. (Source: Autoblog.com)

By then, DeLorean was earning a salary of $200,000 ($1.4 million in 2019), earning yearly bonuses up to $400,000 ($2.8 million in 2019). He was a prominent figure in popular culture thanks to his laid-back fashion style and casual formality.

He kept living his lavish lifestyle to the max, purchasing stakes in American professional sports franchises. He was often spotted hanging out with celebrities and prominent businesspeople. Other executives at General Motors began to feel uncomfortable with DeLorean's nonconformity.

Chevrolet was in desperate need of a new leader. They were going through financial and hierarchial turmoil. The new Camaro was falling far behind schedule, along with redesigns for the Corvette and Nova. They were also going through a PR nightmare after quality control issues affecting most of their lineup.

DeLorean began to streamline the brand by delaying the launch of the new model Camaro and focused on improving quality among their lineup. After his promotion, Chevrolet experienced record sales with around 3 million cars sold, matching its arch-rival, the Ford Motor Company

The Chevrolet Vega

The Chevrolet Vega. Source: Chevrolet

The Chevrolet Vega. Source: Chevrolet

The Chevrolet Vega was the brand's most infamous model at the time, known for its engineering problems, unreliable build quality, below-average safety, and its propensity to rush. The Vega's problems affected not only Chevrolet's reputation but also the reputation of General Motors.

GM President Ed Cole assured the public that the Vega will be "the highest quality product ever built by Chevrolet." After DeLorean came into power, he conducted a thorough inspection of the Vega's assembly line and ordered the first 2,000 cars built to be road-tested.

He found that quality declined drastically after the first few cars out of the production line, as management tried to cut production costs. Out of the 800 workers considered redundant by management, a large fraction of them were additional inspectors.

This lead to a lack of quality control in the plant. Workers left out parts and installed the rest of them improperly. Improper and incomplete Vegas quickly filled the factory lots to be reprocessed by a quality control team lead by DeLorean.

Resignation from GM

John DeLorean in his office. (Source: Aruthur Schatz)

John DeLorean in his office. (Source: Aruthur Schatz)

"Rebates are merely a way of convincing customers to buy bland cars they're not interested in."

john delorean

In 1972, DeLorean rose to vice president of production for the entire General Motors line. However, a year later, he announced his resignation. To him, he wanted to contribute to the social area, and GM's environment stunted what he was able to do.

After his resignation, he took the presidency in the National Alliance of Businessmen, a charitable organization with the mission of employing Americans in need, founded by Lyndon Johnson and Henry Ford. GM was a major contributor. DeLorean agreed to continue his salary while being president at the NAB.

DeLorean was also sharply critical of the direction GM took in the 1970s, along with objecting to the idea of using rebates to sell cars, quote:

"There's no forward response at General Motors to what the public wants today...A car should make people's eyes light up when they step into the showroom. Rebates are merely a way of convincing customers to buy bland cars they're not interested in.

The DeLorean Motor Company

T​he DeLorean Safety Vehicle (Source: Pinterest, Andre Simpson)

T​he DeLorean Safety Vehicle (Source: Pinterest, Andre Simpson)

After leaving General Motors in 1973, he founded the DeLorean Motor Company. He received funding for his new company through partnerships and private investors such as The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson and entertainers Roy Clark and Sammy Davis Jr.

His company also attracted the attention of some politicians as he planned to build his car in a country where unemployment was high. DeLorean looked at many options such as the Republic of Ireland and Puerto Rico but landed in Northern Ireland instead as the British government tried to decrease unemployment and violence in the region.

DeLorean unveiled his first car under his name in 1975, the DeLorean Safety Vehicle. Italdesign's head designer Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the car's body, featuring a stainless steel body with unique gull-wing doors.

After unveiling their first car, the DeLorean Motor Company started to build its first manufacturing facility in Northern Ireland. DeLorean had ambitious plans for his company. He was already a well-established name in the industry, and he wanted to grow his success even further, showing the world what he was able to do.

T​he DeLorean DMC-12

T​he iconic DeLorean DMC-12. (Source: GridOto)

T​he iconic DeLorean DMC-12. (Source: GridOto)

The DeLorean Safety Vehicle eventually tricked down into production as the DeLorean DMC-12. The production version kept most of the concept's design features, such as its gull-wing doors and stainless steel build. The DeLorean DSV was renamed into the DMC-12 because of its promised price of $12,000 ($54,000 in 2019)

A few of DeLorean's former colleagues at GM joined him. William T. Collins, the former chief engineer at Pontiac, developed the first few prototypes. Originally he intended the car to have a mid-mounted Wankel rotary engine but reconsidered when production was beginning to become scarce.

DeLorean selected the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo fuel-injected V6 engine to power the car instead of the rotary engine. The engine's location moved from the middle to the rear in the final production version. Elastic Resovoir Moulding, a new but never used before technology, was planned to be used by DeLorean to manufacture the car's chassis. ERM promised to reduce the car's weight and production costs but was found to be unsuitable.

The company was under immense pressure to begin production of the car. Rushed development and time pressure led to the car being deemed undrivable and required complete re-engineering. As a last-minute effort to get the production line up and running, the team hired Collin Chapman, CEO of Lotus Cars, to get the car production-ready. He overhauled the production line, replacing unproven manufacturing techniques with those employed by Lotus.


T​he DeLorean Factory. (Source: Pinterest, Rick Cogliano, rmsmotoring.com)

T​he DeLorean Factory. (Source: Pinterest, Rick Cogliano, rmsmotoring.com)

Production began in 1981 after many delays and cost overruns. It wasn't a good time to produce the car either, as the US economy went into recession. Budget overruns also plagued the company, along with inexperienced workers as unemployment was high and people were desperate for a job.

DeLorean paid workers premium wages despite their lack of experience. Little to no quality control was present throughout the production line. Cars were delivered in subpar conditions, leading many customers to complain about the car's build quality. Complaints lead to a dispute between customers and dealerships, as many refused to do warranty work because they were not reimbursed.

Some special DeLoreans other than the prototypes were the Visioneering and Legend Turbo cars. The Visioneering car was unveiled before production of the car, built by a Detroit-based company named Visioneering. The Legend Turbo cars were DeLoreans equipped with single or dual turbochargers and engines built by Legend Industries in New York. It was allegedly faster than a Ferrari 3008 and Porsche 928 in the quarter mile. Only four were ever made.

DeLorean also teamed up with American Express to sell 100 24-karat gold-plated DeLoreans to gold-card members. Of course, that was a horrible financial decision. Only two were ever sold, one of which resides in the Petersen Automotive Museum.

D​rug Bust and Fall of DeLorean

A newspaper article covering DeLorean's arrest. (Source: The Pop History Dig, New York Daily News)

A newspaper article covering DeLorean's arrest. (Source: The Pop History Dig, New York Daily News)

In 1982, the FBI caught DeLorean in a drug sting. Airport security footage showed DeLorean carrying a suitcase full of cocaine, saying its as good as gold, referring to its value. This arrest would spark a two-year trial that gained the attention of media outlets throughout America.

At the same time, the British Government had shut down the company's only factory, the final nail in the coffin of the DeLorean Motor Company. Finally, DMC was put out of its misery in 1982 after many cost overruns and bad publicity. With it, 2,500 jobs and $100 million in investments were lost.

The jury decided that DeLorean was not guilty in the drug case. According to his attorney, Howard Weitzmann, DeLorean was manipulated into participating in the deal by the FBI who posed as legitimate investors, as a last-minute effort to save his business.

Unfortunately, the damage was way beyond repair. DeLorean's reputation was forever tarnished despite being cleared from all charges, and he was forced to file bankruptcy in 1999 after trying to start up a few more businesses.

Death and Legacy

The DeLorean Time Machine. (Source: Oto Godfrey, Justin Morton)

The DeLorean Time Machine. (Source: Oto Godfrey, Justin Morton)

Unfortunately, John DeLorean died of stroke complications on March 19, 2005, in New Jersey. His final resting place is in the White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, Michigan, with his tombstone depicting his brainchild, the DeLorean DMC-12, with its gull-wing doors open.

In the American auto industry, he was celebrated as a pioneer. He went against company policy and created one of the most iconic cars to come out of America, the Pontiac GTO. He was a darling in the media thanks to his carefree and casual lifestyle despite his position. He brought Pontiac out of the dark and conceived its brand image, the performance division of GM.

Despite the DeLorean motor company shining for such a short time, the DMC-12 became one of the most sought-after cars among car enthusiasts, even until today. Robert Zemeckis' film Back To The Future gave the DMC-12 its legendary status. According to him, he chose it because of its futuristic design and stainless-steel build, perfect for a time machine. DeLorean was also under a criminal case closely followed by the media, so choosing his car would give the movie some publicity.


John DeLorean's Grave (Source: Find a Grave)

John DeLorean's Grave (Source: Find a Grave)

In conclusion, DeLorean is an essential player in the growth of the American auto industry. He created icons such as the Pontiac GTO, which jumpstarted the horsepower wars. He was an innovator, engineer, and a media darling. He went against what was usual at the time and preferred to go his own way. The American auto industry wouldn't be the same without him.

The Rise and Fall of John DeLorean

Of course, it would be unfair to claim writing the only article about DeLorean. This article by Alen Alen was written way before mine was, so give his article some love too, it would be greatly appreciated.

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Comments (17)

  • Great article about a fascinating man!

    The Pontiacs were kind of amazing actually. And I think it’s probably hard to even understand what kind of maverick you had to be to do something like that at a company like GM.

    Interestingly i read an article in (I think) Classic & Sports Car that clearly suggested the DMC-12 was a much better drivers car than you’d think. Basically the chassis borrows heavily from the Esprite, with a lot of glances at the Alpine A310 V6 too. And while it wasn’t anywhere near as sharp as either of them, with further development it could have been really good. Just imagine if they’d ironed out the chassis and quality control, and installed the 2,5 liter turbo version of the six from the Renault R25 Turbo. 😏

      1 year ago
    • Oh and I remember that they used a different car to overdub the DeLorean in BTTF (the PRV6 was sadly never that throaty). But I forget what. We’re they possibly clever, and car savvy, enough to use a GTO?

        1 year ago
    • I think it was because of how bad the car's build quality was that most customers decided to call the car as a whole "subpar". Pretty sad actually. Thankfully BTTF redeemed it. About the engine thing, not so sure, but makes for a pretty...

      Read more
        1 year ago
  • I bumped this when I saw the Pontiac GTO's name mentioned in the first paragraph, but the whole article was worth it. Good one.

      1 year ago
  • Great story about DeLorean. I should say he was a big fan of the Jaguar E Type and he built a version of the Firebird to compete with it. It had a 4.1 liter straight six but it was a performance engine rather than the base. It had a Quadra jet four barrel and a high performance camshaft. I believe it was the first to use a rubber belt instead of a chain. Such a great engine.

      1 year ago
  • His story always makes me sad... The huge success of Tesla and Elon Musk also reminds me of Mr. DeLorean. He was a pioneer trying to create his own car company in the late 20th century. Today, not only Tesla but so many other startups are trying. De Lorean was ahead of its time. A 21st Century man in the 20th Century.

      1 year ago
  • The ghosts of the DeLorean factory are still visible in Belfast, the test track is still fairly complete and somewhat usable. Never wanted a car as much as a DeLorean DMC12. If I win the lottery I’m hunting down an AXI car.. steering wheel on the right (correct) side...

      1 year ago