The March 21 obituary for John Z. DeLorean incorrectly identified the maker of the Gremlin automobile. It was AMC. (Published 3/23/05)
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.
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 resume, 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!' "
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.
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.