John DeLorean’s Real Life Was Crazier Than Back to the Future
The DeLorean was made famous by the Back to the Future movie franchise, but the man behind the car led a life that was arguably far more entertaining. John DeLorean’s life was so intriguing that it sparked multiple movie biopics, including Framing John DeLorean starring Alec Baldwin and Driven with Jason Sudeikis.
Two movies might not even be enough to fully capture all of DeLorean’s eccentric life. He was part engineer, part executive and part playboy — and so much more.
DeLorean’s Early Life in Detroit
John DeLorean was born on January 6, 1925, in Detroit, Michigan. His father was a union organizer at a Ford Motor Company factory and also did some work as a carpenter. DeLorean’s mother was Hungarian and was employed by General Electric. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, and his father fell into a life of drugs afterward.
DeLorean did well in school, however, and enrolled in a technical high school for honor students from the Detroit area. He earned a scholarship to the Lawrence Institute of Technology, but his studies would be interrupted by a global event.
Drafted Into World War II
In 1943, John DeLorean was drafted into the military to serve in World War II. He was 18 years old when he entered the military, serving three years in the war before being granted an honorable discharge.
When the young adult returned home from war, he found his mother and brothers living in harsh conditions and dealing with economic difficulties. He spent a year working for the Public Lighting Commission in order to help with his family’s finances before he returned to Lawrence Technological University to finish his degree.
Starting His Career in the Automotive Industry
After the war, DeLorean sold life insurance and by all accounts was doing quite well — but he found the work to be boring. He would later state in his autobiography, however, that the work helped him to improve his communication skills.
DeLorean worked for Chrysler briefly before taking a job with motor car company Packard in 1952. In 1956, DeLorean was hired by General Motors and helped to revitalize the Pontiac division. Five years later, in 1961, DeLorean had risen to chief engineer of the Pontiac division and would begin work on creating fast-driving muscle cars.
Introducing the GTO
DeLorean moved up the ranks in General Motors quickly and in 1963 introduced the GTO, a car that essentially put a bigger engine inside the Pontiac Tempest model. It was what’s now commonly referred to as a “muscle car.” In many ways, the GTO was the first muscle car on the market. Eventually, all four major car manufacturers would offer similar vehicles.
The GTO proved to be a successful product for General Motors. The success of DeLorean’s muscle car helped him continue to advance in the company’s hierarchy, too.
Rising Through General Motors’ Ranks
With the GTO proving to be a big success for General Motors, John DeLorean became a key part of the company and moved up within the ranks quickly. In 1965, at the age of 40, he became the youngest general manager in the history of the company.
Seven years later, in 1972, DeLorean was named the head of North American operations for General Motors. As he continued his move up the ladder in General Motors, however, he started to gain a reputation as someone who pushed boundaries and didn’t always make other executives feel comfortable.
Rockstar Attitude and Lifestyle
As DeLorean became more of a higher-up within General Motors and as America moved into the 1970s, DeLorean’s look and persona appeared to change. He grew out long sideburns and began wearing flashy clothing. DeLorean hoped that these behaviors would tap into the youth culture that he wanted to bring into the automotive industry.
DeLorean also began dating supermodels and displaying a rebellious spirit and possibly some narcissistic tendencies. His behavior and appearance began to feel more reminiscent of a rockstar than an automotive executive from the Michigan area.
Going Against GM’s Wishes
Much of what DeLorean wanted to bring to the automotive industry lay in contrast to General Motors’ policies. Company executives were against putting big, powerful engines into small automobile frames, but that’s exactly what DeLorean wanted to do.
In order to get around this policy, DeLorean opted not to design a new car featuring a V8 engine and simply offered an upgrade to the then-current Pontiac Tempest model. DeLorean’s team continued to tweak the Pontiac Tempest and in 1964 sold the Pontiac Tempest GTO.
First Divorce and Single Life
With DeLorean’s career taking off and his persona evolving into one more commonly associated with rockstars than automotive execs, his first marriage came to an end. In his newly single life, he was known to hang around celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson.
His first marriage ended in 1968, but he then married a 20-year-old model not long after. The couple would also divorce in 1972. He then married his third wife, a supermodel, when he was 48. The two moved to New York, where they lived until the 1980s.
Resignation From GM
John DeLorean left General Motors in 1973. He was forced to resign from the company after a copy of a speech he planned to give was leaked to the Detroit News. DeLorean believed that GM was not in tune with the modern customer, and a copy of a speech he was to give that expressed these beliefs was leaked to the media.
Many GM executives felt that DeLorean had been the one to leak the speech to the media himself. As a result, DeLorean stepped down from General Motors in 1973.
Starting His Own Company
DeLorean eventually told the media that he had grown unhappy at General Motors and was glad to be gone. He felt that GM had let down the American consumer by not building smaller cars and by allowing companies from overseas to dominate this area of the market.
After leaving GM, he founded DeLorean Motor Company. The goal was to create what the company referred to as an “ethical sports car.” The result was the DMC-12. It was designed to weigh less than other sports cars and get better gas mileage.
The DMC-12 and Its Many Unique Features
The DeLorean Motor Company set out to create an ethical sports car. In addition to its lighter weight and improved gas mileage, the company’s flagship vehicle boasted numerous other unique features. These included gullwing doors that opened up using hinges in the car’s roof.
The DMC-12 also featured a smaller engine that could go from 0 to 60 in fewer than 8 seconds. DeLorean also promised that the factories that manufactured the cars would protect employees from harmful chemicals that DeLorean said could later turn out to give them some “funny lung disease.”
Financial Backing From the UK Government
DeLorean’s company wasn’t lacking financial support. His business even had investors like DeLorean’s friends Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. supporting it. DeLorean himself even took out a significant loan to support his company.
DeLorean was looking for the best place to put a factory to build the DMC-12 and pitted regions against each other as they competed for the 2,500 jobs the factory would create. Whoever offered DeLorean the best deal was to get the factory. Ultimately, DeLorean received $77 million from the UK government to bring the factory there.
Separate Factory Entrances
As a result of the deal with the UK government, the DeLorean Motor Company opened a factory near Belfast, Ireland, in a town named Dunmurry. The area was rife with conflict between Catholics and Protestants, however.
The factory near Belfast famously featured separate entrances for Catholic and Protestant employees, although this was not entirely due to the religious conflict between the two groups of people. The Catholic and Protestant employees tended to live in different areas of the town and came to the factory from different directions, thus leading to the two separate entrances.
Protection of Fairy Trees
When creating the factory outside of Belfast to manufacture his muscle cars, DeLorean also was concerned with how the construction of the factory would impact local vegetation. In particular, DeLorean insisted that no fairy trees in the area be cut down, trimmed or even touched.
Locals believed that fairies lived inside fairy trees and a horrible fate would befall those who disrespected any of these special trees. Despite best efforts, however, it’s believed that at least one fairy tree was upended during the construction of the factory in Belfast.
More Media Attention
A freelance writer by the name of John Lisners began investigating DeLorean after DeLorean’s assistant contacted him in an attempt to get a book of his barred from publication. The book was critical of General Motors, and after this interaction, Lisners’ interest in DeLorean was piqued. The journalist took a much larger interest in DeLorean from that point on.
Lisners learned of DeLorean’s excessive spending and the plans he had to restructure his company and take it public. These were things that would have negative implications for his investors, including the government organizations he was receiving funding from.
Rupert Murdoch Bans Lisners
As Lisners discovered more about John DeLorean’s plans for the company, he took the story to numerous publications. Lisners also reached out to DeLorean himself for comment. DeLorean informed him that Lisners would never get the story published because DeLorean was a friend of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
DeLorean was right. Murdoch attempted to quash the story and banned Lisners from all of Murdoch’s media outlets. Lisners was unable to report his findings about DeLorean in any of Murdoch’s publications, so he went to the Daily Mirror instead.
Spending Money at an Alarming Rate
Even with all the money coming into the company, it wasn’t enough to prevent the DeLorean Motor Company from experiencing financial difficulties almost immediately. A former executive in the company would later tell the media that it was clear from the get-go that the company would run out of money by the day it produced the first car.
Uncertain finances led the company to continuously turn to the British government for more money. Margaret Thatcher opposed this idea, however, after the government had already given DeLorean $18 million before the factory had even opened.
Concerns From Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher’s concerns about the DeLorean Motor Company peaked with John Lisners’ article in 1981 detailing the company’s plans to restructure. A restructuring of the DeLorean Motor Company would likely have had negative impacts on any of the company’s investors that didn’t hold stock in the company, such as the UK government.
After the article appeared, Margaret Thatcher, who by this time was the prime minister, withdrew promises to provide the company with more money. This left John DeLorean’s company in a dire financial situation. Things didn’t get better for him or his company afterward.
Riddled With Problems
Making things even worse for the young company was the slew of problems in the first few cars produced. Switches popped loose, parts fell off, doors jammed shut or refused to latch and windows fell out of their tracks. The DeLorean failed to live up to its promises.
Car and Driver magazine noted that reviewers had an overwhelmingly positive first impression of the DeLorean Motor Company’s DMC-12. But it also stated that the slew of problems left the car short of any commercial standard of acceptability.
Johnny Carson’s DeLorean Breaks Down
Even DeLorean’s good friend Johnny Carson, who had invested half a million dollars into the company, was not sent a functioning vehicle. Early investors in the company, such as the hit talk show host, had pre-ordered cars to be delivered to them. This first batch of cars had the largest number of problems, however.
When Carson got his new car, it broke down just a few miles into his first journey, and a rescue vehicle had to be sent to bring him back. The problems continued mounting for the DeLorean Motor Company.
November 1981 Recall
Things kept getting worse for the DeLorean Motor Company and the DMC-12. The cars were subjected to a recall in November of 1981 due to faulty suspensions. This was on top of all of the other problems buyers had been reporting about the cars.
In particular, the car wasn’t as fast as the company had promised. The DeLorean Motor Company also said the DMC-12 would cost about the same as a Corvette, which was around $14,000. The DMC-12 was listed at $25,000, however.
Poor Sales Results
Ultimately, the DeLorean Motor Company failed to sell many of the cars. Sales of the DMC-12 did not meet expectations at all. In total, only around 6,000 of the vehicles found their way onto the roads by 1982.
Sales were likely negatively impacted by the poor reviews, the November 1981 recall and reports that the car wasn’t as fast or as affordable as people had expected. While John DeLorean had risen to success throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the 1980s looked to be bringing about his downfall.
The Golden DeLorean
In addition to the standard DMC-12, the DeLorean Motor Company also produced a more expensive version of the car. This version wasn’t more reliable and still didn’t deliver the promised speeds. Instead, it was marked up in price due to the fact that it was plated with 24-karat gold.
The price tag for this gold-covered vehicle was $85,000. In comparison, a Porsche 911 was just under $28,000 at the time. While the company said it would produce 100 gold-plated versions of the car, only two were ever sold.
An Unsavory Career Change
By 1982, the DeLorean Motor Company was hemorrhaging money. DeLorean was denied additional funding from the British government in January of 1982, leaving the future of his company in doubt. The factory in Belfast was shut down, and 2,500 workers were out of their jobs.
With his car not selling and no ability to produce more, DeLorean did what others have done when facing financial uncertainty: He started selling cocaine. According to the FBI, DeLorean had expressed an interest in financing a drug operation that would result in a quick return on his investment.
Criminal Charges for Selling Cocaine
Not even 10 months after John DeLorean was denied additional funding from the UK government, he was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine. According to the FBI, DeLorean offered his neighbor stock in his company in exchange for more than 50 pounds of the stuff.
It’s not known if the neighbor knew how poorly DeLorean’s company was doing at the time. DeLorean was caught on tape declaring that cocaine was better than gold, but despite the FBI’s intent of putting the automotive executive behind bars, DeLorean was ultimately acquitted.
Acquittal on All Charges
DeLorean was successfully acquitted of all charges in 1984, two years after having been arrested and charged with possession of cocaine. His defense team was successfully able to argue an entrapment defense. Helping out his cause was the fact that DeLorean hadn’t actually given any of the promised equity of his company away to his neighbor, despite having said he would do so.
His trial lasted 22 weeks, but in the end, he was acquitted on all eight counts of substance conspiracy possession and distribution charges. DeLorean’s legal troubles were far from over, however.
The Downward Spiral
Despite his acquittal, John DeLorean’s life was spiraling down in the mid-1980s. So far, the decade had brought him a failed business and a criminal trial. In 1985, he lost his third wife as well when she filed for divorce and obtained custody of their two children.
She later told the media that, as much as she loved John and felt that he loved her, he was simply emotionally unavailable. She also said that she needed to get herself and her family into a more normal atmosphere.
Facing Civil Litigation From Investors
While his criminal charges had been successfully defended, DeLorean’s investors sought to take him to court as well. One year after being acquitted on his drug charges, DeLorean was indicted for fraud and accused of conning his investors out of $12.5 million.
According to the charges, DeLorean took almost $9 million of company money for personal use. DeLorean was successfully able to fend off the charges of fraud but spent the next decade paying back investors and shareholders. He would never recover financially and eventually was forced to declare personal bankruptcy.
Back to the Future was released in 1985. The film featured one of DeLorean’s cars that had been tweaked in order to travel through time. According to Bob Gale, who helped write and produce the movies, there was something about the DeLorean that felt counter-culture and dangerous.
Gale noted that those involved in making the film loved the car, especially the gullwing doors. By the time Back to the Future had brought the DeLorean into the public spotlight, however, the DeLorean Motor Company had long since shut down.
Bankruptcy, Death and the DeLorean’s Legacy
After spending the second half of the 1980s and all of the 1990s paying back investors and creditors from his failed business, DeLorean filed for personal bankruptcy in 1999. At the time, he was married to his fourth wife and in his mid-70s. He died of a stroke in 2005 at the age of 80.
His company may have been a failure, but the DeLorean was forever entrenched in movie culture thanks to the Back to the Future films. DeLorean even wrote a letter to the film’s director to thank him for featuring the car in the movies.