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The March 21 obituary for John Z. DeLorean incorrectly identified the maker of the Gremlin automobile. It was AMC.
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Flashy Automaker John Z. DeLorean, 80, Dies

John Zachary DeLorean was born Jan. 6, 1925 in Detroit. His father was an Eastern European immigrant with a reputation for drunken brawling. The father later disappeared from the family, leaving Mr. DeLorean's mother, an Austrian immigrant, to provide for their four sons. The one luxury in Mr. DeLorean's life was music lessons, which helped him win a college scholarship.

After Army service during World War II, he graduated from the Lawrence Institute of Technology in Detroit, a renowned center for auto design. Later, while taking night classes, he received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, which was affiliated with the automaker, and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan.


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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One of his earliest jobs was at the Packard Motor Co., a luxury-car maker. There, he developed an innovative automatic transmission system that he called the "ultramatic."

With Packard under financial distress, Mr. DeLorean made the leap to Pontiac in 1956 and became director of advanced engineering. He immediately established himself as an idea man par excellence.

His designs for the Catalina and Bonneville won praise from notable auto racers, which lent them cachet. His compact Tempest model was named "car of the year" by Motor Trend magazine in 1961, the year he was promoted to GM chief engineer.

Radio, as he had noted, was instrumental in finding and then disseminating trends. With that in mind, he launched his greatest early venture, the GTO. "Little GTO," a song extolling the car's power, became a hit for Ronnie and the Daytonas. The car itself took its name from a Ferrari coupe called the Gran Turismo Omologato, but the design owed to fitting the powerful 389-cubic-inch, V-8 engine of the Bonneville into the smaller body of the Pontiac Tempest/LeMans.

The manufacturer sold all its 31,000 models by the end of the year, and the car continued to be a major moneymaker for the company for years. He continued to guide the company in accenting powerful, stylish models, such as the Firebird, and more luxurious models, such as the Grand Prix.

At this time, he was a familiar sight in the social pages, driving -- to much ridicule -- his Italian sports car. With dark, dashing good looks, he dated a series of beautiful film stars and showgirls, some of whom remarked on his hubris. One woman said she was unimpressed with his Christmas gift to her: a leather-bound portfolio featuring photographs of himself.

In 1969, Mr. DeLorean was asked to take over GM's flailing Chevrolet division. He cut administrative staffing at the top ranks and spent heavily on testing vehicles to ensure their quality. He introduced the compact, fuel-efficient Vega to compete with Ford's Pinto and GMC's Gremlin, but he otherwise found many of his proposals dismissed by his bosses.

Eventually becoming a GM vice president in 1972, he found ways to trim $1 billion in expenses, but he chafed at his superiors when they wanted a year's extension on meeting federal emission-control standards. "It was like standing in the boiler room and tending a machine and you were just watching it instead if running it," he told Fortune magazine.

In 1973, he resigned his $650,000-a-year position at GM, which gave him a Cadillac franchise in Florida as a retirement gift. He soon was lecturing about complacence within the car industry, and he helped business reporter J. Patrick Wright on a book-length expose, "On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors."

As his hopes for the DeLorean Motor Co. began to take shape, Mr. DeLorean retreated from the agreement with Wright. He feared that General Motors could "crush me like a grape" if he were associated with the book. An unauthorized version of the book, published in 1979, was heralded for its insight.

The nearly 40 legal cases stemming from the death of the DeLorean Motor Co. took him years to sort out. He lost a series of homes and faced constant litigation regarding unpaid fees to his attorneys and others. He declared bankruptcy in 1999.

More recently, Mr. DeLorean sold pricey watches over the Internet under the brand name DeLorean Time. It was his hope one day to sell new models of the DeLorean sports car, which had become a cult favorite since its starring role as a time machine in the film comedy "Back to the Future" (1985).

He told an interviewer: "Someone outside the country wants to build a plant for the cars, either here or outside the country, but I can't disclose that information."

His marriages to Elizabeth Higgins, and two models, Kelly Harmon and Cristina Ferrare ended in divorce. Survivors include his fourth wife, Sally; a child from each of his second, third and four marriages; three brothers; and two grandchildren.


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