People Throwback Thursday

John DeLorean: A Genius Cut Short

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John DeLorean always wanted to build a safe two seat sports car. After GM took his Banshee show car and used its polarizing features on the Corvette, he was incensed. Building your own car is no easy task. Using his jet-set celebrity status and proven history in auto innovations, he brought together the best minds in the industry and formed DeLorean Motor Company (DMC).

What’s in a name? The “DeLorean DMC-12” was intended to cost $12,000 (in 1974 dollars, which is approximately $56,927 today) and be a safe, economical sports car. Pulling from his Pontiac past, John lured their Assistant Chief Engineer William Collins away to form the DeLorean Motor Company. No expense would be spared, and no compromises were to be made. In keeping with that theme, Giorgietto Giugiaro was tapped to pen a stunning design. The tall purposeful wheelhouses that protrude north of the beltline and the raked windshield make for a car that is easily recognized from any angle.

Stainless steel was the skin of choice for this new supercar. It will never rust and can easily be cleaned with a Brillo pad and WD40. The tradeoff is weight. Stainless isn’t the lightest steel, and it requires more intense (read: expensive) tooling to manufacture. Leaving the body unpainted kept weight down and allowed owners to choose their own color if desired. The stainless panels were glued to the body in modular sections that could be easily replaced after an accident. A recent trend among owners is taking a buffer to the body and polishing the cars to a mirror shine. This was considered in production, but polished flat surfaces had the potential to blind oncoming drivers if the sun was low in the sky.

Once the design was finalized, they needed a chassis to support it. John was the head of Chevrolet in the late 60’s when Owens-Corning experimented with new fiberglass techniques for the Corvette. Strength was improved and weight was dropped by transitioning to Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP). Corvette still had a traditional steel frame, but the DMC-12 would use composites  in overlapping layers to form a high strength one piece birdcage, or “monocoque” in modern parlance.


Ditching the steel perimeter frame while keeping a performance minded suspension would be difficult. Throw in the fact that GRP bodies won’t pass crash testing and you have a nightmare on your hands. John asked Lotus founder Colin Chapman to come onboard to sort out these issues. As suspected, Grumman crash tested the car and it was a spectacular failure. He asked John for complete control in redesigning the chassis. He knew what works, so the steel backbone from the Lotus Esprit was modified to fit the floorpan.


The car was now ready for production, but where would it be built? John had already decided on a plant in Puerto Rico when the British government made a very promising offer. They would subsidize his plant and materials with a line of credit equal to $20,000 per car. The only catch is that the plant had to be built on the border between Catholic and Protestant parts of Dunmurry, Ireland, and have separate entrances for each denomination. At this point in history, tensions between Irish nationals and the United Kingdom ran rampantly high. The Irish car bomb was not a party drink in the ‘80s. It was a real threat by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who wanted English Protestants off their island. Delays in building a new plant piled onto the delays from redesigning the chassis, pulling the car very far behind schedule.

Once assembly began, the unskilled plant workers slowly ramped up production. Quality issues plagued the first cars and final adjustments had to be made in the US before new owners received deliveries. Locating the plant in Ireland instead of Puerto Rico meant that American-made components had to take a slow boat across the pond, which led to parts shortages on the assembly line. The delays continued.

As the cars arrived, dealers and new owners began to realize how underpowered the tiny V6 was. John chose to use the Peugeot Renault Volvo (PRV) V6. It was designed as a traditional V8, but for packaging reasons, the last two cylinders were cut off, leaving a 90 degree V6 behind. V6 engines firing at 90 degrees are inherently unbalanced and require an oddball firing order to keep vibrations down. This choice made the DeLorean a lame duck from the beginning. For comparison, a 2013 Prius has the same 0-60 time as the DMC-12: about 9.8 seconds.

Delays and cost overruns of this type are typical of any new car, and the big automakers write it off as the cost of innovation. DeLorean didn’t have the cash on hand to cover these losses. Taking more loans from the British Government, they began to closely monitor his business practices to make sure their investments would pay off. Scotland Yard’s fraud department contacted the FBI and DEA about their investigations and the FBI hatched a plan. Using cocaine traffickers who were actually FBI informants, DeLorean was contacted with an opportunity for “offshore investors” to finance his beleaguered operations. Even though he never took possession of the cocaine, he was arrested on Oct. 19, 1982. After spending 10 days in a Los Angeles jail, he was released on a $2.5 million bond.


This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As the company fell apart, British investigators began to dig through DMC’s financial records to look for their money. They noticed that Colin Chapman’s engineering work totaled $23 million.  Records stated that Lotus was to be paid from a Swiss holding account, but the funds were never paid out. Lotus invoiced DMC directly, and DeLorean filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Chapman’s finances were being investigated and Lotus’ head accountant Fred Bushel was found complicit in hiding the £10 million loaned by the government. The Judge stated that Chapman was just as guilty as Bushel, but as investigators began looking at Lotus, Chapman mysteriously died of a massive heart attack. The legendary auto innovator was dead at 54.

DeLorean was not found guilty on the basis of entrapment, and DMC went into receivership. The car became immortalized alongside Michael J. Fox in the “Back To The Future” trilogy, and John wrote a letter to the film’s writer Bob Gale thanking him for redeeming his and the car’s image. John kept inventing and filed a patent for a new monorail design in 1994. The ongoing legal battles from DMC’s collapse forced him into personal bankruptcy in 1999. He began work on a new car, the DMC2, which would succeed where the original car failed. It was to have a monster engine and all composite body for under $30 grand. On March 19, 2005, John suffered a fatal stroke. He was 80 years old, and the DMC2 was never completed.


We look back on a lifetime that is responsible for the GTO, Judge, Firebird and even the Vega. He didn’t always succeed, but at least he tried. Who knows what the DMC2 could have done, if he had just a little more time.