Classic Cars Wiki
Classic Cars Wiki

John Zachary DeLorean (January 6, 1925 – March 19, 2005) was an American engineer and executive in the U.S. automobile industry, most notably with General Motors, and founder of the DeLorean Motor Company. He was best known for developing the Pontiac GTO muscle car, the Pontiac Firebird, Pontiac Grand Prix, and the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car, which was later featured in the 1985 film Back to the Future, and for his high profile 1982 arrest on charges of drug trafficking. The alleged drug trafficking was supposedly an attempt to raise funds for his struggling company, which declared bankruptcy that same year. He successfully defended himself against the drug trafficking charges, showing that his alleged involvement was a result of entrapment by federal agents.

Early life[]

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 Zaharie was a Romanian immigrant, originally from Şugag, Alba County,who worked in a mill factory; Zaharie emigrated to the United States when he was twenty. He spent time in Montana and Gary, Indiana before moving to Michigan.By the time John was born, Zaharie had found employment as a union organizer at the Ford Motor Company factory in nearby Highland Park. His poor English skills and lack of education prevented him from higher-paid work. When not required at Ford, he occasionally worked as a carpenter. DeLorean's mother, Kathryn, was an immigrant from Austria. She 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 low income.She generally tolerated her husband's erratic behavior, but during several of the worst times of Zachary's violent tendencies, she would take her sons to live with her sister in Los Angeles, California, where they would stay for a year or so at a time. DeLorean's parents divorced in 1942. 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 he 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 Detroit college that was the alma mater of some of the automobile industry's best draftsmen and designers. At Lawrence, 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 and received an honorable discharge. He returned to Detroit to find his mother and siblings in economic difficulty because of 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, then returned to Lawrence to finish his degree. While back in college, he worked part-time at Chrysler and at a local body shop, presaging his later contributions in the automotive industry. DeLorean graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial 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 these areas held little interest for DeLorean. DeLorean's uncle[8] Earl Pribak, a foreman at Chrysler's engineering garage, recommended that he apply for work at Chrysler and DeLorean agreed. Chrysler ran a post-graduate educational facility named the Chrysler Institute of Engineering, which allowed DeLorean to advance his education while gaining real-world experience in automotive engineering. 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 completed 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, because of changes in the automobile consumer market. While Ford, General Motors and American Motors had begun producing affordable mainstream products, Packard 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 DeLorean'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[]


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 wide-track wheels, 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 smaller version of the Pontiac Banshee Show car for 1966. DeLorean's version was rejected because of GM's concern that his design would take away sales from the Corvette, their flagship performance vehicle, so instead they forced him to work with the existing Camaro design. He could only make changes to the front and rear of the car and even had to use the same fenders. The vehicle, the Pontiac Firebird, introduced for the 1967 model year became even more popular throughout the 70s. Shortly after the Firebird's introduction, 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. Sales were sagging by this time however, but the new for 1969 model 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 6-foot-long (1.8 m) hood. Inside was a sporty and luxurious interior highlighted by a wraparound cockpit-style instrument panel, bucket seats and center console. The new model offered a sportier, high performance, somewhat smaller and lower-priced alternative to the other personal luxury cars then on the market such as Ford Thunderbird, Buick Riviera, Lincoln Continental Mark III and Oldsmobile Toronado,The 1969 Grand Prix 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. Ralph Nader's book, Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1965, criticized a number of Detroit automobiles as poorly designed for safety concerns, including the Chevrolet Corvair model. 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.


The 1970 Chevrolet Nova was released behind schedule under DeLorean's leadership of GM's Chevrolet division. 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 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 Camaro was due out for the 1970 model year, and it was rapidly falling behind schedule. Redesigns for the Corvette and Nova were also delayed, and unit sales had still not recovered from the past four years of turmoil, much of that because of 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 Camaro, and simplifying the modifications to the Corvette and Nova. 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 corporate management, specifically by GM president Ed Cole, just weeks before DeLorean's 1969 arrival as Chevrolet division's general manager. In a Motor Trend interview August, 1970 DeLorean said, "Vega will be the highest quality product ever built by Chevrolet."By DeLorean's orders, tens of extra inspectors were assigned on the Vega assembly line and the first two thousand cars were road tested. He stated, "The first cars, from a manufacturing standpoint, were well built." But in 1972, General Motors Assembly Division (GMAD) took over the Chevrolet Lordstown assembly plant and adjoining Fisher body plant. Their main goal was to cut costs and more than 800 workers were laid off, many of which were additional inspectors. This led to assembly-line vandalism, with workers intentionally slowing the line, leaving off parts and installing others improperly. Incomplete and often non-functioning cars soon filled the factory lot, the vehicles then had to be reprocessed and repaired by a team assigned to this task by DeLorean. A one-month wildcat strike followed and dealers didn't receive enough cars for the demand in 1972. DeLorean regrouped for the 1973 model year with Vega sales of 395,792. The one millionth Vega was built in May 1973, a month after DeLorean's GM resignation.

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." GM gave him a Florida Cadillac franchise as a retirement gift, and 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, sold approximately 1.6 million copies, but disagreements over the content led to a conflict between the collaborators and a libel suit against DeLorean. DeLorean claimed to have never received his share of the revenues.

DeLorean Motor Company[]

DeLorean left General Motors in 1973 to form his own company, the DeLorean Motor Company. A two-seater sports car prototype was shown in the mid-1970s called the DeLorean Safety Vehicle (DSV), with its bodyshell designed by Italdesign's Giorgetto Giugiaro. The car entered into production as the DMC-12, but known simply as the DeLorean. The car's body distinctively used stainless steel and featured gull-wing doors and was powered by the "Douvrin" V6 engine developed by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo.

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. Renault was contracted to build the factory, which employed over 2000 workers at its peak production. The engine was made by Renault, while Lotus designed the chassis and bodywork details. The factory started manufacturing cars in early 1981, but the company was in receivership by February 1982. It turned out around 9,000 cars over 21 months before the British government ordered its closure in November 1982. When the Back to the Future film came out in 1985, featuring DeLorean's namesake car, DeLorean wrote a letter to Bob Gale, one of the movie's producers and writers, thanking him for immortalizing the car in the film. The letter can be seen in the special features of the Back to the Future DVD release.

Arrest and trial[]

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. DeLorean went along with these discussions only agreeing that what was being suggested would work, he had been talking to his attorney who advised him to just stall and not give the money, which was supposed to be paid to James Hoffman as a commission for brokering a deal between DeLorean Motor Company and potential "investors". DeLorean avoided paying the money by lying and stating that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had control of the money and had placed the money to pay fees to the British government. He was told by Benedict, an "investor" that DeLorean had put him in a bad spot and that it would be a "bloody mess", this was construed as a threat that later DeLorean was told meant it would be his daughter if he did not cooperate. DeLorean was told to make it look like the money was there so the deal could go through. 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 U.S. government. DeLorean successfully defended himself with a procedural defense, despite video evidence of his referring to a suitcase full of cocaine as "good as gold" – arguing that the FBI had enticed a convicted narcotics smuggler to get 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 found not guilty because of entrapment on August 16, 1984.

In late 1982, DeLorean's legal troubles were satirized in the comic strip Doonesbury, in which the character of Uncle Duke travels to Hollywood to become a film producer and make a movie based on DeLorean's life story. Duke, in an attempt to raise the money needed to buy the rights to the story, sets up a cocaine deal and is arrested by undercover government agents.

Later enterprises[]

On November 1, 1994, DeLorean filed patent #5,359,941 with the US Patent and Trademark Office for a raised monorail transport.The transport was never built. In the years before his death, DeLorean planned to resurrect his car company, and gave interviews describing a new vehicle called the DMC2. In an effort to gather funds for this venture, he designed and sold high-end watches via the internet under the name DeLorean Time.[18] Made of what appeared in promotions to be injection molded stainless steel, the watches sold for $3,495. By purchasing one you were placed on a waiting list for the chance to buy one of the first DMC2s when they became available. None of the watches seem to have ever been built or delivered to customers before DeLorean's death.

Personal life[]

According to his autobiography, both DeLorean and ex-wife Cristina Ferrare became born-again Christians following the entrapment controversy. DeLorean was married four times. His first marriage was to Elizabeth Higgins on September 3, 1954 and divorced in 1969. DeLorean then married Kelly Harmon, daughter of Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox and also sister of actor Mark Harmon, on May 31, 1969 and divorced in 1972. His third marriage was to model Cristina Ferrare (with whom he had a daughter on November 15, 1977), ending in divorce in 1985. He was married to Sally Baldwin until his death in 2005. DeLorean also adopted a son, Zachary, as a single father.

DeLorean's name is correctly spelled without the space, as DeLorean, the same goes for the Company. Only if the use of lower case letters was not possible (or not wanted), for instance on typewritten documents of the DeLorean Motor Company, the use of a space is correct. This appears to have been the company's chosen form. In typeset documents, a half space, not a full space, appears between the two portions, and the same is visible in more stylistic representations, as on the automobiles themselves.

DeLorean appeared in a widely published magazine advertisement for Cutty Sark whisky in the year prior to his arrest and the collapse of his company. It was captioned "One out of every 100 new businesses succeeds. Here's to those who take the odds." 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 from a stroke, on March 19, 2005 at age 80. He was a resident of Bedminster Township, New Jersey.His ashes are buried at the White Chapel Cemetery, in Troy, Michigan. His tombstone shows a depiction of his DMC-12 with the gull-wing doors open. At the request of his family, and in keeping with military tradition, he was interred with military honors for his service in World War II. The band Neon Neon recorded a concept album Stainless Style in 2008 based on John DeLorean's life story.