Change is the only constant, and enacting change is constantly difficult. Changing the auto industry seems like an insurmountable task, but one man did it. Starting on the ground floor, John DeLorean was poised to be the next president of General Motors, and at the height of his career, he simply walked away.
DeLorean was born Jan. 6, 1925 in Detroit. After serving three years in WWII, he worked part time at a body shop and at the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. The institute was, and is, a Post Graduate program that prepares engineers for the industry. With hands-on experience he landed a job at Packard. Always the innovator, he improved the efficiency of their automatic transmissions by adding a lockup clutch that directly linked the engine to the wheels. Eliminating slippage in an automatic provides much better fuel mileage and lower temperatures.
He also added a separate shift range that allowed the driver to launch in low or high gear, depending on how much acceleration is needed. These and other innovations caught the eye of Oliver Kelley, the VP of engineering for GM.
Kelley gave DeLorean the opportunity to work at any GM division he wanted, and he chose Pontiac. Branded as the performance division, Pontiacs generally had more powerful engines and high-performance accessories. Once again, he proved to be an innovator and patented many new parts. His successes earned the promotion to Chief Engineer in 1961.
One Friday afternoon, he couldn’t decide which car to drive for the weekend. None of Pontiac’s offerings seemed “fun.” This motivated his team to install the monster 389ci motor from the full-size Catalina into the small Tempest, making for one fast car. Other goodies added to the Tempest included a Hurst Shifter, a four-barrel carburetor, stiffer springs and a larger sway bar. This recipe proved to be quite potent and he had a hard time with GM’s top brass begging to drive it. In an homage to Ferrari, John named this option package the Gran Turismo Omologata. The GTO was Ferrari’s street legal race car built to homologate their 250 in the FIA’s Group 3 GT class.
Beginning in the fall of ’64, this hot option package could be added to your Tempest or LeMans for only $296 more than the window sticker. This violated the internal GM limit on engine size in intermediate cars, but DeLorean didn’t care. The GTO was a smash hit and its success was the basis for another promotion. The year was 1965; John was 40 years old and in control of Pontiac.
After the GTO, John decided Pontiac should have a model that competes in almost every category. The Grand Prix was designed for ultra luxury cruising and “The Judge” was a super GTO meant to slaughter Fords & Dodges in ways only Cormac McCarthy could describe. He and his team had built a wild concept named “Banshee” to explore the feasibility of a two-seat mustang fighter- only to earn the admonishment of the upper management. He was forced to settle on a re-skinned version of the Camaro, which debuted as the 67 Firebird. One wonders what anger this instilled, as the Banshee’s wild proportions were stolen by Chevy for their new for 68 Corvette. DeLorean knew that one day he would build his own sports car, with or without GM.
Moving up the corporate ladder in the late 60’s, he was the symbol of a new youthful renaissance inside GM. Promoted to head up Chevrolet, John used his skill set to extract more fun & performance from each model. In a Dec. 1969 Sports Illustrated article, Brock Yates wrote that John “builds sporty cars and lives life in a style unique in the annals of the giant automaker.”
His recipe for success caught the eye of many celebrities and pro sports players. He could often be seen socializing with the likes of Kirk Kerkorian, Johnny Carson and the Rat Pack. Making news for himself, he became a prominent investor with George Steinbrenner’s efforts to buy the Yankees. This lavish life probably did not sit well with GM’s culture of white collar conservatism.
The early 70’s were a tumultuous time for GM. Labor relations caused a strike, which pushed back releases of the new Camaro and the Nova. Oil shortages were making Americans rethink powerful domestic cars. The time was ripe for DeLorean to be rewarded for his efforts. He was to be the next President, but on April 2, 1973 he announced his retirement to the press. John DeLorean was 48 years old and wanted to chase his dreams without being encumbered by the stoicism and monotony that accompanies the big chair.
We all know the eponymous stainless gull-wing that bears his name, but do you know the full story behind it? Stay tuned to Autofluence for the second half of the DeLorean tale.
(Sources: Sports Illustrated)