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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.