John Zachary DeLorean was indisputably a brilliant engineer. A flamboyant, aggressive business executive who burst out of the staid, yes-men culture of the 1950s, he would prove to be an early model of the modern American visionary—think Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg—who discarded convention in pursuit of a singular vision. In his case, that meant trying to create the greatest sports car the world had ever seen.
He also was accused of being a thief, a fraud, an embezzler and a brazen con man who fooled everyone he ever did business with, from celebrities to superpowers, bilking them out of millions of dollars in the process. DeLorean’s longtime attorney and staunch personal advocate Howard Weitzman told the Los Angeles Times after the carmaker’s death in 2005 that “John DeLorean had one of the most warped views of right and wrong” he had ever come across.
So how did the man behind America’s first muscle car become a figure with such a tortured legacy? Because much like the car he’s most famous for—the DMC-12, a cultural icon thanks to its featured role in the “Back to the Future” movies—he’s both celebrated for his sleek fantasy vision of the future, and widely mocked for his spectacular, and sordid, failures.
The Early Years
The son of immigrant factory workers, John Zachary DeLorean was born on January 6, 1925, and grew up in a primarily working-class neighborhood on the east side of Detroit. His father, Zachary, was a union organizer and foundry worker at the Ford Motor Company. Drivetribe, an online community platform for auto enthusiasts, reported that his “poor English and problems with alcohol prevented him from ever progressing beyond the factory floor.”
John’s mother, Kathryn, worked for General Electric and tried to keep things together at home. Hemmings Daily reported that when things got particularly rough, she would whisk the boys away to her sister’s home in Los Angeles. It has been speculated that John developed a love for the California lifestyle during these escapes.
His education was interrupted by World War II (he served in the Army), but he eventually earned a master’s in automotive engineering and, later, an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan. He officially began his automotive career in 1952, joining the research and development team at the Packard Motor Car Company. Before long, he became a rising star in the company—and in the industry.
In 1956, DeLorean took a position at General Motors as an engineer at the Pontiac division. At the time, GM was the biggest company in the world and the place to be, but Pontiac struggled with its brand identity and wasn’t connecting with America’s youth—suddenly a huge new consumer force driving the country’s emerging car culture. Pontiac seemed to make only stuffy cars for older adults.
Pontiac was “really in trouble,” says J. Patrick Wright, author of On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors, the bestselling tell-all book about the auto giant. It was “like an old person’s division.”
“When DeLorean left,” he says, it “had become the third-best nameplate in the auto industry, right behind Chevy and Ford.”
While other GM executives focused on building stately automobiles that seemed to float down the street on a cloud, DeLorean had different plans. He wanted to replace those sedate rides with sportier vehicles, machines that embraced a youth culture more interested in going fast than being cozy. When Pete Estes took over the reins of Pontiac in 1961 and DeLorean was named the division’s chief engineer, he seized the opportunity by having his engineering team throw a big, 389-cubic-inch V8 engine from the full-size Pontiac Bonneville into the midsize Pontiac Tempest. The result was a maneuverable but brawny car with a racing-friendly surplus of power and torque.
DeLorean called it the Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO, and it created a new category of automobile that would come to be known as the muscle car.
But GM had a strict mandate prohibiting its engineers from sticking big engines in smaller cars to make them go fast. So the top executives at GM would never have approved the GTO as conceived. As captured in Framing John DeLorean, a new film directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce and told in a documentary style with dramatic reenactments starring Alec Baldwin as DeLorean and a supporting cast of top Hollywood character actors, the engineer came up with a loophole—with Estes’ approval, of course—to justify the high-performance aspect of the car. Instead of selling the car as a stand-alone model, the larger engine would be offered as a $295 option package on the 1964 Tempest. GTO-equipped coupes started at $2,852; convertibles started at $3,081.
The GTO package was an instant hit. Orders poured in. GM went on to sell 32,450 GTOs in its first year in production.
For this blatant act of defiance, DeLorean was handsomely rewarded, leapfrogging in 1965 ahead of several promising engineers with more seniority to become the youngest general manager of Pontiac at age 40. Four years later, he was named the youngest manager of Chevrolet, and in 1972 he was made the head of GM’s North American car and truck operations.
Not only was DeLorean a great engineer, he cultivated a talent for marketing as well. He understood something other auto industry executives hadn’t yet grasped: Automobiles were just as much about style as they were about nuts and bolts. “None of these guys were paying attention to the fashion side,” Wright says. After DeLorean gave us the Firebird, his reputation took flight well beyond Detroit.
Before the GTO, DeLorean’s lifestyle had conformed to GM’s image of an executive: He kept his hair short and clean, wore conservative three-piece suits, was married and attended the right social functions. That all changed after the muscle car was born. Now he was a rock star—making the money of one and living the lifestyle. He started working out and wearing trendy clothes, and in 1968 he divorced his first wife, Elizabeth Higgins, after 14 years of marriage, to spend more time on the West Coast. There, he hobnobbed with Hollywood’s elite and dated models and actresses like Ursula Andress, Joey Heatherton and Tina Sinatra.
This new DeLorean was brash, even more arrogant and turned his nose up at GM’s elite—and they had a love-hate relationship with him because of it. He was successful for “not doing what they told him to do” and instead following his own instincts, Wright says. “The divisions were making money, and a lot of the profit ended up in the bonuses [of those executives] at the end of each year. They loved their bonuses” even as they grew to dislike DeLorean. It became a Catch-22 of greed.
In 1969, DeLorean married actress Kelly Harmon, the sister of actor Mark Harmon (of NCIS fame) and the daughter of Tom Harmon, a college-football legend, war hero and sportscaster. Kelly was 20. He was 44. The couple adopted a son, Zachary, but continued to live a jet-set lifestyle, shunning the social scene in Detroit.
If his lifestyle hadn’t rankled his colleagues already, his push for significant changes at GM—such as abandoning big cars in favor of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles—was sacrilegious.
But by the spring of 1973, it all changed. Harmon and DeLorean had divorced. Then came the infamous Greenbrier presentation. DeLorean was set to give a confidential speech to 700 top GM executives at the triannual Greenbrier Hotel GM management conference in West Virginia. Topic: How the poor quality of cars they were producing was hurting GM’s bottom line. The speech was very critical. His staff insisted he tone it down, which he did—but an unedited copy of the presentation mysteriously leaked and was published by the Detroit News. Both his supporters and his detractors at GM turned on him. DeLorean resigned in April 1973.
Six months later he told the New York Times that “he didn’t want the job anyway because a top management post at GM consists of sitting in meetings all day. Even at $650,000 a year, if the job is not satisfying, you do something else,” he said.
The DeLorean Era
Five weeks later, the flamboyant automaker had already began a new life, one free from the shackles of Detroit. He married supermodel Cristina Ferrare in a private ceremony in Los Angeles, and they promptly set up house in New York City. She was 23. He was 48. DeLorean also started working on plans to form a car company.
The DeLorean Motor Company was officially founded on October 24, 1975, in Detroit. The plan was to build what DeLorean called an “ethical car,” a car that was safe, long-lasting and sustainable. “He envisioned a car that would be the best of everything,” says Jordan Livingston, a documentary filmmaker finishing a project on the automaker entitled Living the Dream. “He wanted the best style, he wanted the [least] environmental impact, he wanted the best value for the customer, and he also wanted the best safety.”
Within two years, the company had created a mid-engine prototype to draw investors. Bill Collins, a former colleague at Pontiac who was a key player in the creation of the GTO, engineered a first prototype for what would become the DMC-12. But DeLorean brought Colin Chapman, the charismatic, flashy founder of Lotus Cars, to reengineer the chassis and suspension. Collins was soon summarily dispatched.
And yet the car’s design drew backers. The coupe’s iconic look was created by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Italian designer and founder of ItalDesign who was behind such classics as the Alfa Romeo Iguana concept car, the Lotus Esprit, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone, the Techrules Ren and many others. He based the DeLorean on a 1970 concept car he had drawn up for Porsche, which was similarly wedge-shaped and, most importantly, featured a stainless-steel body with gull-wing doors. Its power came from a rear-mounted Peugeot-Renault-Volvo 2.85 liter V6 engine that produced 130 horsepower.
Seed capital came quickly, as DeLorean took a Bank of America loan and turned to entertainers—like Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, Roy Clark and Sammy Davis Jr.—for additional investors. He also raised money through a program that gave dealerships selling DeLorean’s cars shares in the company. DeLorean went looking for government development funds to build a factory.
In February 1978, Business Week reported that the company had been “flirting with Canada, Spain, Pennsylvania, Ohio and most recently his home town, Detroit.” But after inking a preliminary agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the government of Puerto Rico to build a factory on a former Air Force base, DeLorean received a better offer from the British government to build a factory in Northern Ireland, on a cow pasture in Dunmurry, just outside Belfast, right in the heart of the bloody conflict between Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities.
Total investment: More than $1oo million in British government loans and loan guarantees, and tens of million from private investors. Everything seemed to be in place.
Except: All that money would disappear, very fast.
“The biggest problem we had was that the first business plan that was developed once the project had come to Northern Ireland made it quite clear we’re going to run out of money the day we produced the first car,” says Barrie Wills, author of John Z, the Delorean, and Me: Tales from an Insider, who was DMC’s director of purchasing and supply at the time and then its final CEO. “We always knew that. And that’s why we were constantly under pressure to try and persuade the British government to give us just a bit more money. But that wasn’t forthcoming.”
Seven months after breaking ground in Belfast, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party came to power in Britain. She did not approve of the deal the Labour Party had struck with the American. “She frowned upon any government investment in what she considered to be private industry,” Wills explains.
Then, in January 1981 the first wave of cars had quality-control issues, which led to bad press in the U.S. Critics were thrilled with how the car looked. But the car was underpowered, offered so-so handling, and was neither as groundbreakingly safe nor as fuel-efficient as DeLorean had promised it would be.
The money crisis grew. A plan emerged to restructure the company and take it public as the DeLorean Motors Holding Company. The proposed stock offering would have personally enriched DeLorean, the company’s majority stockholder, by around $120 million, but would have left anyone holding only “options”— like the car dealers who had joined the dealer investor program—with next to nothing. It would be a particularly bad deal for Margaret Thatcher and the British government.
“Thatcher was outraged,” Livingston says, and she cut off any further investment in the American company, placing the Belfast plant in receivership. In the end, only 9,000 DMC-12s were built, approximately 6,000 of which were sold to consumers.
It Hits the Fan Belt
Even so, DeLorean assured DMC executives the money was on its way. Back then, Livingston says, the Irish in Belfast would believe anything DeLorean said. “When John DeLorean came to [inspect the troops], it might as well have been George Clooney or Brad Pitt visiting the factory floor,” Livingston says. “Here was this rock star with a supermodel on his arm. People were absolutely starstruck.”
To this day, many still consider the flawed auto exec to be a savior, no matter what he is said to have done. “Everybody—from the taxi drivers to bartenders to hotel clerks, everybody— has something to say about John DeLorean,” says Livingston, who recently attended a reunion of DMC workers and their families. “He left an incredible stamp on the community.”
Why? Working at DMC was not only the first job for most, explains Livingston, but it was also one of the highest-paying and most meaningful jobs they’ve ever had: “He came in to a place that had almost 80% unemployment, created jobs, skilled jobs, jobs these people could be proud of.”
As for investors, Wills says, a group in the U.S. led by financier Jeanne Farnan was allegedly raising money for the company, and according to a report in the Washington Post, Farnan claimed to have located investors willing to put up $10 million as part of a financial package to rescue the firm shortly before government-appointed receivers planned to declare the DeLorean company defunct. She forwarded the final loan documents to DeLorean on the morning of October 19, 1982, the last day for the company to either obtain new financing or face liquidation.
It was too good to be true. “It was money the receivers would have never accepted,” Wills says. According to the Washington Post, “Farnan is facing a criminal investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.” (Farnan eventually served five months on criminal contempt of court charges.) DeLorean never signed the papers, though. He apparently had another plan.
Wills went home after a long day at the office, had a meal and settled in for the night. He got a call around 8 p.m. from one of the company’s new British government overlords telling him to call the workforce together and close up the shop for good. It came as a shock. “We’d kept all the key people together in the hope that the company would be restructured, that the funds would be found, one way or the other, to bring it back to life again,” Wills says. He knew things were dire but didn’t understand the sudden rush.
He would come to understand it the following morning. He turned on the BBC and learned that DeLorean had been arrested in a videotaped sting by the FBI, during which he allegedly agreed to a scheme to sell 220 pounds of cocaine, worth an estimated $24 million, in the hope it would provide enough cash to keep his company afloat.
Wills had to face the workers after hearing the news. “There were grown men in tears,” he says. In less than 24 hours, the staff had gone from being told the money was on the way to seeing their boss—whom they adored, either in spite or because of his bravado—arrested on drug charges. A week later, DMC filed for bankruptcy.
During the trial that followed, DeLorean’s attorney, Howard Weitzman, argued that the FBI had been able to entrap the desperate automaker because they knew he would do anything to save his business. And the evidence suggested Weitzman had a point. According to multiple reports at the time, the deal was presented to DeLorean by a paid FBI informant. When DeLorean said he didn’t have the cash to pay for the drugs up front, the informant promised to arrange the financing as long as he would put up his company as collateral. And although he showed intent, he never took possession of the drugs.
It seems he never planned to pay for them either. The cocaine deal was yet another business venture into which DeLorean was not putting a dime of his own money. The government believed his agreement to hand over control of his company constituted proof of his willingness to participate. But DeLorean did not give them control of DeLorean Motor Cars Limited or the DeLorean Motor Company. Instead he agreed to provide them with control of DMC, Inc., a dormant shell company that had no assets. DeLorean was conning the con men. (And he may have been lucky they were fake; the Medellin Cartel, for example, might not have been very amused with the ruse.)
After less than 30 hours of deliberation, DeLorean was acquitted of all charges.
Just Getting Started
His legal woes, though, were only beginning, and he faced trials for embezzlement and fraud by federal prosecutors and an investigation by British authorities. He was never convicted. But accountants did recover almost a $100 million for the creditors of DeLorean Motor Company in civil court over the course of nearly two decades.
Most of that came from the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, which was found guilty of negligence and breach of contract in its audits of the defunct auto company. The firm was ordered by a New York state jury in March 1998 to pay $46.2 million to the motor company’s creditors and shareholders for delivering misleading audit opinions on the automaker in 1978 and 1979. They later settled for $27.2 million. An earlier, related lawsuit filed against the accounting firm by the British government was settled in 1997, with Arthur Andersen agreeing to pay an estimated $35 million.
Driven into bankruptcy, DeLorean had to sell his home in New Jersey, where his nearly 500-acre estate was eventually purchased by Donald Trump and converted into a Trump National Golf Club, which he frequently visits as president.
Along the way, DeLorean’s family also fell apart, as Ferrare left him after he was acquitted on the cocaine charges, taking her daughter, Kathryn, and Zachary with her. “There were definitely immediate effects,” says Zachary, who’s now 47. “I mean, how the hell couldn’t there be?”
DeLorean died on March 19, 2005, at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey, from complications after a stroke. He was 80 and had been living in a one-bedroom apartment in Bedminster with his fourth wife, Sally.
Today Zachary DeLorean no longer blames his father. “We all make decisions in life, and some of them are right and some of them are wrong,” he says. When asked about his father’s legacy, though, Zach is as divided as everyone else.
“On one hand, I feel proud of my father,” he says. “On the other hand, I just want to blow the f—-ing thing up.”