John Zachary De Lorean always lived life in the fast lane.
But after years of globe-trotting, of Nehru jackets and turtlenecks in General Motors Corp.'s staid executive suite, of finding a glamorous wife through a Max Factor cosmetics ad, of owning a piece of the New York Yankees, of betting it all on his dream to start the first successful new automobile company in decades -- De Lorean now stands charged with financing a $24 million cocaine deal, allegedly to raise money in a last-ditch attempt to save his beleaguered sports-car company.
"I'm stupefied," said Roy D. Chapin Jr., former chairman of American Motors Corp., who once considered throwing his company's support behind De Lorean's sports-car venture.
"I was kind of stunned," said William Collins, former vice president in charge of product for De Lorean Motor Cars, who left the company three years ago to start his own firm. "I can't imagine John doing anything as stupid as that."
Ironically, De Lorean's arrest in Los Angeles Tuesday came just hours after the apparent financial death knell for the company that was to be his crowning achievement. After failing to find new financial backing for the enterprise, British government officials that day closed down the company's plant in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where 2,600 workers had turned out the stainless-steel, gull-wing sports car before sales collapsed.
De Lorean had said Monday night that he was readying a new bailout. He pledged to deposit $10 million of the $40 million needed to restart production within 48 hours of receiving the blessing of the British government, one of his financial backers.
It is unclear where that money would have come from, just as the source of another cash infusion last spring was not revealed. But federal agents alleged De Lorean had put up half of the company's stock as collateral in a deal with undercover agents, hoping to make a quick $12 million-plus profit to rescue his company.
"It became quite clear that he expected through this endeavor and transaction to realize significant profit that could be put back into his company to keep it solvent," said Rolland Hughes, senior assistant special agent in the Los Angeles office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "If that sounds like a desperate man, sure," he said.
Those who knew De Lorean said he was "obsessed" with making his company a success. "There's no question in my mind that he wanted to prove he could do the job, that he could do something that nobody had done in 30 years -- bring out a new car," said a friend.
"He was a very highly motivated sort of person, and I don't know how far motivations will carry some people," said Chapin.
Collins said a drug deal would seem out of character for De Lorean: "He professed to be a real health addict, and health addicts don't use that sort of stuff." Friends said they'd never even seen him drink. Federal agents say there is no indication that he was a cocaine user.
The De Lorean legend was made at General Motors. The son of an auto foundry worker, he rose from the engineering ranks at several auto companies to the stewardship of Pontiac and Chevrolet, and then to group vice president in charge of the giant automaker's North American car and truck operations.
He was making $650,000 a year. Twice divorced, he had dated Raquel Welch and Candice Bergen before marrying model Cristina Ferrare. His hair was long and his clothes were casual. But even with his nonconformist lifestyle, he was seen as a potential heir-apparent to run GM.
Then, in 1973, he abruptly quit.
In the book "On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors," on which he initially collaborated with author J. Patrick Wright, De Lorean says he left GM frustrated with its slow decision-making process, concerned about what he perceived as a lack of ethical standards and the victim of a conspiracy to force him out because of his controversial status as the company's "token hippie."
De Lorean's response was the promise of a new, "ethical" car, one that would offer high gas mileage, good performance, sleek design and safety in a package originally supposed to cost $8,000.
That price later rose to about $25,000 -- although these days you can find a De Lorean discounted to about $19,000 -- and many of the other promises turned out to be as hard to keep. The car, which finally went into production two years ago, was said by some critics to be underpowered, poorly built and chockful of design flaws. One critic scorned it as "just the automotive equivalent of a set of designer luggage."
But even as the company worked to clear up the car's technical problems, its finances were going into a tailspin. Despite its sharp looks, the car didn't sell, the victim of the recession, bad marketing and whispers about its mechanical problems.
Earlier this year, Bank of America, seeking money owed to it by De Lorean's company, seized 2,000 cars in company lots in New Jersey and California. Suppliers pressed for their payments; dealers, who had become part-owners of the company in De Lorean's scheme of things, were left with unsold cars, unpaid warranty claims and unfulfilled debts.
Lawsuits from creditors mounted. And the British government, which had enthusiastically backed the project as a way of helping revive the economy of strife-torn Belfast, got cold feet and began winding the operation down.
To the end, De Lorean sat in the company's Park Avenue offices and looked for a way out, reluctant to part with his dream -- "something I'd call the sirens of the sea," is how one friend, Automotive News editor Keith Crain, described it. "It is an irresistable call," Crain added. "There is a very high price to pay for such a dream."