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Colorful DeLorean's life hit high and low roads

November 12, 2006|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

Even in death, now some 18 months later, the man is still generating sales hype.

Take a few clicks through ebaymotors.com, autotrader.com or any other automotive auction Web site, and the magic of John DeLorean and his dream car are still alive and kicking.

There's a brochure from 1981 for sale ($48.95), a front speaker ($3) or even something called a lower pivot block ($2.50) which is supposed to hold up the lower engine cover.

And, of course, there are still a few cars out there for sale, some for $17,000 and others for $6,500.

"This is the dream car you've always wanted," writes one eBay seller.

And isn't that a perfect statement?

DeLorean, the man, not the car, was always interested in the dream.

He was forever searching for the next best bet, the perfect combination and the winning formula.

An engineer by trade, but a born leader by example, DeLorean's story is the stuff of a Hollywood movie: immigrant upbringing; gutsy business decisions; beautiful wives; success; failure; drugs and bankruptcy.

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At times, even he knew that he lived by different rules.

"My enemies had destroyed themselves in their effort to be my undoing," he wrote in his self-titled autobiography. "I must admit I identified with King David when he wrote the third Psalm: 'O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!'"

Friends, foes, failures and fortunes, the story of DeLorean is fascinating.

Born John Zachary DeLorean just six days into 1925 in a tough, middle-class neighborhood on the northeast side of Detroit, Mich., he was the eldest of four sons born to European immigrants Zachary and Kathryn DeLorean.

His father was a Ford foundry worker and John's excellent academic record allowed him to attend Detroit's prestigious Lawrence Institute of Technology where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.

But he wasn't necessarily headed for engineering.

DeLorean probably would have made a great life-insurance salesman - his first full-time job after college - had a family member not suggested he attend the Chrysler Institute where he could obtain a post-graduate degree while working as an engineer.

DeLorean went to work in the automotive industry, first for Chrysler and then Packard.

But when he moved to General Motors in the 1960s, DeLorean's star was rising.

He was Pontiac's chief engineer and his innovations - recessed and articulated windshield wipers, lane-changing turn signals and overhead-cam six-cylinder engines - were highly successful. But his idea to offer the practical 1964 Tempest with a performance package called Tempest/Le Mans, would become the stuff of legends.

The GTO, as it was called, sent DeLorean's stock off the charts, especially when dealers couldn't get enough of them. At the end of 1964, GM produced 32,000 GTOs, six times the projected volume. DeLorean was the Golden Boy at GM and at 40 was the youngest division head.

However, his success with the GTO, and then the Grand Prix, combined with clashes over GM's corporate culture, made DeLorean a bit of a rebel within the industry. He dressed well. He traveled the world and hung out with Hollywood stars. And his division was highly profitable.

He was put in charge of Chevrolet, then appointed to the position of vice president of car and truck production for the entire company. DeLorean was headed for the top. And then he resigned.

The auto world was stunned.

"Unfortunately, the nature of the business just won't permit me to do as much as I wanted," he said on April 2, 1973, the day he walked away from GM at age 48.

But DeLorean's life was hardly over.

He wanted to begin his own car company - the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) - and showed a two-seat sports car prototype in the mid-1970s called the DeLorean Safety Vehicle. Skinned in stainless steel and featuring "gull-wing" doors, the DMC-12 had a Renault engine and the design was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the famed Italian designer. It was the talk of the auto world in the early 1980s.

DeLorean was loaned most of the money - one of the investors was former The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson - and the British government gave financial incentives to build the car in Northern Ireland. The factory began building cars in 1981, but was shut down by 1983 after 8,900 cars were produced.

As the funds for the company dried up, De Lorean had other issues. On October 19, 1982, he was charged with trafficking 55 pounds of cocaine on the same day he was scheduled to receive additional funding for the DMC-12.

He successfully defended himself in court, arguing that police had asked him to supply the money to buy the cocaine.

But DeLorean's auto career was finished, up in flames before he was 60 and bankrupt by 1999. Before his death last year following a stroke at 80, he was working on a business venture that would sell high-end watches. No watches were ever produced.

It was a colorful life from beginning to end.

He was married four times (among his wives was model Cristina Ferrare). He was never forgotten for his vision, his style or the cars that were the offspring of both.

Jason Stein is a feature wrier with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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