John Zachary DeLorean (January 6, 1925 – March 19, 2005) was an American engineer and executive in the U.S. automobile industry, and founder of the DeLorean Motor Company. He was most well known for developing the Pontiac GTO muscle car, the Pontiac Firebird & the DeLorean sports car, which was later featured in the movie Back to the Future, and for his high profile 1982 arrest on charges of drug trafficking in an apparent attempt to raise funds for his struggling company, which declared bankruptcy that same year. He successfully defended himself against these charges, showing that his alleged involvement was a result of entrapment by federal agents.
John Zachary DeLorean was born on January 6, 1925 in Detroit, Michigan, the eldest of four sons of Zachary and Kathryn Pribak DeLorean.
DeLorean's father was a millwright, the youngest of thirteen children, who immigrated from Romania to America when he was twenty. He spent time in Montana and Gary, Indiana before moving to Michigan. By the time his son, John, was born, he had found employment as a union organizer at the Ford Motor Company factory in nearby Highland Park. His poor English and lack of education prevented him from higher-paid work. When not required at Ford, he occasionally worked as a carpenter.
DeLorean's mother was an immigrant from Hungary, and was employed at the Carboloy Products Division of General Electric throughout much of DeLorean's early life. She accepted work whenever found to supplement the family's income.
DeLorean's parents divorced in 1942, and John subsequently saw little of his father, who moved into a boarding house, becoming a solitary and estranged alcoholic.Several years after the divorce, John visited his father, finding him so impaired by alcohol that they could barely communicate.
DeLorean attended Detroit's public grade schools, and was then accepted into Cass Technical High School, a technical high school for Detroit's honor students where he signed up for the electrical curriculum. DeLorean found the Cass experience exhilarating and excelled at his studies. His academic record and musical talents earned him a scholarship at Lawrence Institute of Technology (now known as Lawrence Technological University), a small but illustrious Detroit college that was alma mater of some of the area's best draftsmen and designers. There again he excelled in the study of industrial engineering, and was elected to the school's Honor Society.
World War II interrupted his studies. In 1943, DeLorean was drafted for military service and served three years in the U.S. Army before being honorably discharged, when he returned to Detroit to find his mother and siblings in economic difficulty due to the strains of Kathryn's single income. DeLorean worked as a draftsman for the Public Lighting Commission for a year and a half to improve his family's financial status before finishing his degree at Lawrence. DeLorean's final years at Lawrence were his prologue to his later contributions in the automotive industry, when he worked part-time at Chrysler and a local body shop. DeLorean graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.
Instead of entering the engineering workforce after earning his degree, DeLorean sold life insurance, and later worked for the Factory Equipment Corporation. DeLorean states in his autobiography that he sold life insurance to improve his communications skills. Both endeavors were successful financially, but DeLorean held little interest in these areas. DeLorean's uncle, Earl Pribak, a foreman at Chrysler's engineering garage, recommended he apply work at Chrysler and DeLorean agreed. Chrysler ran a post-graduate educational facility named the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, which allowed him to advance his education while gaining real-world experience in engineering at the automaker.
In 1952, DeLorean graduated from the Chrysler Institute with a masters degree in automotive engineering, and joined Chrysler's engineering team. DeLorean also attended night classes at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business to earn credits for his MBA, which he earned in 1957.
Packard Motor Company
DeLorean's time at Chrysler lasted less than a year, ending when he was offered a US $14,000 salary at Packard Motor Company under supervision of noted engineer Forest McFarland. DeLorean quickly gained the attention of his new employer with an improvement to the Ultramatic automatic transmission, giving it an improved torque converter and dual drive ranges; it was launched as the "Twin-Ultramatic".
Packard was experiencing financial difficulties when DeLorean joined, due to changes in the automobile consumer market. While Ford, General Motors and American Motors had begun producing affordable mainstream products, Packard, Ewing, and Marquette clung to their pre-WWII era notions of high-end, precisely engineered luxury cars. This exclusive philosophy was to take its toll on profitability. However, it proved to have a positive effect on De Lorean's attention to engineering detail, and after four years at Packard he became McFarland's successor as head of research and development.
While still a profitable company, Packard suffered alongside other independents as it struggled to compete when Ford and General Motors engaged in a price war. James Nance, President of Packard, decided to merge the company with Studebaker Corporation in 1954.A subsequent proposed merger with American Motors Corporation never passed the discussion phase. DeLorean considered keeping his job and moving to Studebaker headquarters in South Bend, Indiana, when he received a call from Oliver K. Kelley, vice president of engineering at General Motors, a man whom DeLorean greatly admired. Kelley called to offer DeLorean his choice of jobs in five divisions of GM.
General Motors - Pontiac
DeLorean accepted a $16,000 salary offer with a bonus program, choosing to work at GM's Pontiac division as an assistant to chief engineer Pete Estes and general manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen. Knudsen was the son of the former president of GM, William Knudsen, who was called away from his post to head the war mobilization production effort at the request of President Roosevelt. Knudsen was also a MIT engineering graduate, and at 42 he was the youngest man to head a division of GM. DeLorean and Knudsen quickly became close friends, and DeLorean eventually cited Knudsen as a major influence and mentor.
DeLorean's years of engineering at Pontiac were highly successful and produced dozens of patented innovations for the company, and in 1961 he was promoted to the position of division chief engineer. He is credited with developments such as the wide-track look, torque-box perimeter frame, recessed and articulated windshield wipers, the lane-change turn signal, overhead-cam six-cylinder engine, Endura bumper, and a variety of other cosmetic and structural design elements.
DeLorean's most notable contribution to Pontiac was the Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato), a muscle car named after the Ferrari 250 GTO. It evolved from the practical 1961 Pontiac Tempest, which DeLorean later evolved into the Pontiac LeMans. The GTO debuted as a Tempest/LeMans option package with a larger, more powerful engine in 1964. It is credited for saving Pontiac from their dated stigma as producer of the "old lady's car" by creating a design that symbolized a generation of new, younger, more affluent drivers with a need for speed and style.
From its launch in 1964, sales of the car and its popularity continued to grow dramatically in the following years. DeLorean received almost total credit for the success of the "first muscle car", which is probably due in large part to his talent for self-promotion. As with any new vehicle development, scores of individuals are involved with the conceptualizing, engineering, and marketing – but John DeLorean became the singular golden boy of Pontiac, and was rewarded with his 1965 promotion to head the entire Pontiac division.
DeLorean was no longer a professional engineer. At the age of 40, he had broken the record for youngest division head at GM, and was determined to continue his string of successes. Adapting to the frustrations that he perceived in the executive offices was, however, a difficult transition for him. DeLorean believed there was an undue amount of infighting at GM between divisional heads, and several of Pontiac's advertising campaign themes met with internal resistance, such as the "Tiger" campaign used to promote the GTO and other Pontiac models in 1965 and 1966.
In response to the "pony car" market dominated by the wildly-successful Ford Mustang, DeLorean turned to the 14th Floor for permission to offer a Pontiac version of a similar vehicle then under development at the Chevrolet division that was set for introduction as a 1967 model named the Camaro. His original planned version of a pony car, the Pontiac Banshee, was rejected due to GM's concern that his design would take away sells from the Corvette, their flagship vehicle in performance, and instead was forced to work with the Camaro body style. This left him little room to make changes, but he came up with a model called the Pontiac Firebird.
Shortly after the Firebird's introduction in 1967, DeLorean turned his attention to development of an all-new Grand Prix, the division's personal luxury car based on the full sized Pontiac line since 1962 but whose sales were sagging by this time For the 1969 model, the car would have its own distinct body shell with drivetrain and chassis components from the intermediate-sized Pontiac A-body (Tempest, LeMans, GTO). The 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix looked a lot like a slightly scaled down Cadillac Eldorado with its razor-sharp bodylines and a six-foot long hood. Inside was a sporty and luxurious interior highlighted by a wraparound cockpit-style instrument panel, bucket seats and center console. The 1969 Grand Prix offered a sportier and higher performance alternative to the other personal luxury cars then on the market such as Ford Thunderbird, Buick Riviera, Lincoln Continental Mark III and Oldsmobile Toronado in a smaller size and lower price tag. The '69 Grand Prix was one of the industry's biggest successes that year with production ending up at over 112,000 units, far higher than the 32,000 1968 Grand Prix built from the full-sized Pontiac body.
During his time at Pontiac, DeLorean had begun to enjoy the freedom and celebrity that came with his position, and spent a good deal of his time traveling to locations around the world to support promotional events. His frequent public appearances helped to solidify his image as a "rebel" corporate businessman with his trendy dress style and casual banter.
Even as General Motors experienced revenue declines, Pontiac remained highly profitable under DeLorean, and despite his growing reputation as a corporate maverick, on February 15, 1969 he was again promoted. This time it was to head up the prestigious Chevrolet division, General Motors' flagship brand.
By this time, DeLorean was commanding an annual salary of $200,000, with yearly bonuses of up to $400,000. He had made sizable investments in the San Diego Chargers and the New York Yankees sports teams, and was becoming ever more ubiquitous in the popular culture.
DeLorean continued his jet-setting lifestyle, and was often seen hanging out in business and entertainment celebrity circles. He became friends with James T. Aubrey, president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and was introduced to celebrities such as financier Kirk Kerkorian, Chris-Craft chairman Herb Siegel, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson.
The executive offices of General Motors headquarters continued to clash with DeLorean's nonconformity, and he was still not able to fit the traditional mold of conservatism that was usually expected of someone of his stature. When John was appointed, Chevrolet was having financial and organizational troubles, and GM president Ed Cole needed a first-class manager in that position to sort things out — company man or not. The new model Nova was due out for the 1970 model year, and it was rapidly falling behind schedule. Redesigns for the Corvette and Camaro were also delayed, and unit sales had still not recovered from the past 4 years of turmoil, much of that due to the bad publicity surrounding the Corvair and well-publicized quality-control issues affecting other Chevy models, including defective motor mounts that led to an unprecedented recall of 6.7 million Chevrolets built between 1965 and 1969.
DeLorean responded to the production problems by delaying the release of the Nova, and simplifying the modifications to the Corvette and Camaro. He used the extra time to streamline Chevrolet's production overhead and reduce assembly costs. By 1971, Chevrolet was experiencing record sales in excess of 3 million vehicles, and his division alone was nearly matching that of the entire Ford Motor Company. Another promotion was imminent for DeLorean.
The Vega was assigned to Chevrolet by GM corporate engineers and management, notably, GM president Ed Cole, chief Vega engineer, just weeks before DeLorean's arrival at Chevrolet in 1969 as the division's General Manager. DeLorean rallied his division engineers, and in his words, "to build the highest quality product we had been given." He was able to claim in a 1970 Motor Trend interview that "Vega will be the highest quality product ever built by Chevrolet." Strong words, but by DeLorean's orders, it was the first time tens of extra inspectors were assigned on an assembly line and the first time the first two thousand cars of a new model were road tested.
Then in 1972, General Motors Assembly Division (GMAD) took over the Chevrolet Lordstown factory firing the additional inspectors and increasing the line speed. This led to strikes and assembly line vandalism with incomplete cars lining up in the factory lot and dealers not receiving enough cars in 1972. He regrouped for the 1973 model year with Vega sales of 395,792. The millionth Vega was built a month after DeLorean's resignation from GM in 1973.
In 1972, DeLorean was appointed to the position of vice president of car and truck production for the entire General Motors line, and his eventual rise to president seemed inevitable. Instead, John DeLorean unexpectedly resigned from General Motors on April 2, 1973 at age 48, telling the confused press that "I want to do things in the social area. I have to do them, and unfortunately the nature of our business just didn't permit me to do as much as I wanted." DeLorean did in fact take over the presidency of The National Alliance of Businessmen, a charitable organization with the mission of employing Americans in need, founded by Lyndon Johnson and Henry Ford. GM was a major contributor to the group, and agreed to continue his salary while he remained president of NAB.
Patrick Wright, author and former Business Week reporter, approached DeLorean with the idea of writing a book based on his experiences at General Motors. DeLorean agreed to dictate his recollections for Wright, who would write the book. The final product, published in 1979, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, topped the best seller lists.
DeLorean Motor Company
DeLorean left General Motors (GM) to form his own company, the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC), showing a two-seater sports car prototype in the mid-1970s called the DeLorean Safety Vehicle (DSV), with its bodyshell designed by Ital Design's Giorgetto Giugiaro. The DeLorean's body distinctively used stainless steel and featured gull-wing doors. The production model was powered by the "Douvrin" V6 engine developed by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo (PRV).
The manufacturing plant to build the new car was built in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, with substantial financial incentives from the Northern Ireland Development Agency of around £100 million. The engine was made by Renault, while Lotus designed the chassis and bodywork details. The factory, which employed more than 2,000 people at the peak of prodcution, started manufacturing cars in early 1981, but the company was in receivership by February 1982. It turned out approximately 9,200 cars over 21 months before the British government ordered its closure in October 1982.
In the summer of 1982, DeLorean received a phone call from James Hoffman, a former drug smuggler turned FBI informant. DeLorean met with Hoffman on July 11, 1982, to discuss an investment opportunity to help save his company. Over the course of the next three months, Hoffman slowly explained his intricate plan involving cocaine smugglers, a bank for laundering money, and the specifics of how much money DeLorean would be required to front to procure the deal. On October 19, before going to meet the investors to consummate the deal, DeLorean wrote a letter to his attorney and sealed it, with instructions to open it only if he did not return. The letter explained the situation he was in and his fear for his family's safety if he tried to back out of the deal. On October 19, 1982, DeLorean was charged with trafficking in cocaine by the US Government.
DeLorean successfully defended himself with a procedural defense, arguing that the police had asked him to supply the money to buy the cocaine. His attorney stated in Time (March 19, 1984), "This [was] a fictitious crime. Without the government, there would be no crime." The DeLorean defense team did not call any witnesses. DeLorean was acquitted on August 16, 1984.
According to his autobiography, both DeLorean and then-wife Cristina Ferrare became born-again Christians following the entrapment controversy. DeLorean was married four times. His first marriage was to Elizabeth Higgins on 3 September 1954 and divorced in 1969. DeLorean then married Kelly Harmon on 31 May 1969 and divorced in 1972. His third marriage was to model Cristina Ferrare (with whom he had daughter on 15 Nov 1977), ending in divorce in 1985. He was married to Sally Baldwin until his death in 2005.
In 1999, DeLorean declared personal bankruptcy after fighting over forty legal cases since the collapse of DeLorean Motor Company.
Death and legacy
DeLorean died at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey on March 19, 2005 from a stroke, aged 80. He was a resident of Bedminster Township, New Jersey. At the time of his death, DeLorean was working on a business venture project known as DeLorean Time, a company that would sell high-end wristwatches. DeLorean's death caused the dissolution of the company, and no DeLorean Time products were ever offered to the public. His ashes are buried at the White Chapel Cemetery, in Troy, Michigan. At the request of his family, and in keeping with military tradition, he was interred with military honors for his service in WWII.
On March 3, 2010 the Hollywood trade publication Daily Variety reported that David Permut would be producing a competing biopic of DeLorean's life along with producer Steve Lee Jones.
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