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Correction to This Article
The March 21 obituary for John Z. DeLorean incorrectly identified the maker of the Gremlin automobile. It was AMC.

Flashy Automaker John Z. DeLorean, 80, Dies

Executive Known For Legal Troubles, Stylish Innovations

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page B05

John Z. DeLorean, 80, the brilliant but troubled automaker who arguably was as flamboyant as his car designs, died March 19 at a hospital in Summit, N.J., after a stroke.

Mr. DeLorean, the son of an autoworker, reached the executive ranks of General Motors Corp. with an astonishing series of successes that revolutionized the industry. He attributed his rise largely to an acute cultural awareness missing in the older executives he saw around him, men he once described as "sitting behind [a] desk, wearing a pair of those old high-top leather shoes and packing a big wad of cigars" in their shirt pockets.


American automaker John DeLorean, in 1981, rose quickly as an idea man at GM before starting his own ill-fated car company. (AP)

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His winning formula was strikingly simple and hip: Listen to rock and roll radio. From there, he said, one could gauge what young buyers wanted, what trends would develop. "It's the cheapest education you could get," he once said.

He won acclaim by introducing sports-car sexiness to conservative Pontiac with his GTO muscle car in the 1960s. He also brought Pontiac its first compact vehicle, predicting a trend to more fuel-efficient models. Ceaselessly inventive, he was credited with creating the overhead-cam engine, concealed windshield wipers, the lane-change turn signal, vertically stacked headlights, racing stripes and an emphasis on cockpitlike driver consoles. He said he had more than 200 patents.

Mr. DeLorean conveyed a manic, restless energy at GM, where he was viewed as Chevrolet's savior after a period of extensive decline for that brand. But his rise never seemed to satisfy him, and instead he felt more constricted by bosses who he said were out to get him and deliberately stymied his plans to improve cars and increase sales. If GM's sales were below 50 percent of total U.S. car sales, he said, the federal government would not have any incentive to dismantle the company.

With his overconfident, often dazzling demeanor and a string of innovations behind him, he widely had been expected to take over GM.

Instead, he left to form his own, eponymous company with the hope of creating an economical, "ethical" sports car. The British government gave nearly 100 million pounds to the business, hoping that Mr. DeLorean's plan to employ 2,000 workers near Belfast in Northern Ireland would cause support to dwindle for the Irish Republican Army.

Mr. DeLorean's dream was crusted with problems with the start, from undercapitalization to mechanical flaws in the car's design. It took seven years to create the DeLorean DMC-12, a sleek sports car with a stainless-steel body, gull-winged doors and a rear-mounted, V-6 fuel-injected engine.

The cost overruns raised the sticker price to more than $25,000, well beyond the reach of most car-buyers in 1981. The British government, under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, demanded that Mr. DeLorean raise more money to keep the project solvent. When he was unable to meet the price of business, the plant closed in late 1982, having produced about 9,000 cars.

Embittered, Mr. DeLorean went after the Thatcher government with the gusto with which he previously attacked GM. Business had been flourishing, he wrote on his résumé, but, "The UK government closed [the plants] because the Catholic employees were said to be tithing to the IRA."

His troubles only grew. Returning to the United States, he became embroiled in a drug sting operation and was arrested in a Los Angeles hotel room in October 1982. He faced more than 60 years in prison.

Law enforcement officials said he intended to sell $24 million of cocaine to prop up his flailing auto business. To them, the case was clear-cut, complete with an FBI surveillance tape of Mr. DeLorean accepting a suitcase containing 55 pounds of cocaine and telling an undercover agent that "it's better than gold."

A series of maneuvers by Mr. DeLorean's legal defense team discredited the star witness, a convicted drug dealer turned government informer. Their main argument was entrapment by the government. Mr. DeLorean was acquitted on all drug charges and beat a later indictment on charges of defrauding investors in his company.

"We didn't need our extensive defense plan," he later wrote in his 1985 memoir, "DeLorean," by which point he said he was a born-again Christian. "My enemies had destroyed themselves in their effort to be my undoing. 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!' "


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