John Z. DeLorean: Rebel with a Cause

John Z. DeLorean: Rebel with a Cause

DeLoreanBy John Gunnell

John Zachary DeLorean (JZD) was legendary in Detroit and Hollywood and generated lots of media coverage. Some say a character in Arthur Haley’s Wheels was based on the rule-bending “Young Turk.” JZD’s own 1979 book On a Clear Day, You Can See General Motors exposed the inner workings of GM. JZD established the DeLorean Motor Co. (DMC) to build the ill-fated DMC-12 gull-wing. But, his biggest headlines came in 1982 when he was accused of trafficking in drugs to try to keep DMC out bankruptcy.

JZD was a creative genius and non-conformist of the highest rank. In Glory Days, Jim Wangers stated, “DeLorean had an innate passion for Pontiac and that enthusiasm, combined with his engineering capability, was one of the reasons Pete Estes chose him to become chief engineer when he moved to GM.”


A Classic Background

JZD was born Jan. 6, 1925 in Detroit, Mich., the oldest of four sons of Zachary DeLorean, a Romanian immigrant, Ford worker and carpenter. His mother was a Hungarian immigrant who worked at Carboloy Products. JZD grew up in a tough, working class neighbourhood. His parents divorced in 1942 due to his father’s drinking.

JZD went to Detroit public schools and Cass Technical High School before winning a scholarship to Lawrence Institute of Technology. There, he showed great talents in music and industrial engineering.

John got drafted in 1943 and spent three years in the army. Then, he returned to Lawrence to earn his B.S in mechanical engineering. He worked part-time for Chrysler and at a body shop. After a short stint as a life insurance salesman, JZD attended the Chrysler Institute. He earned a Masters in Automotive Engineering and took night classes at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business to earn credits for the MBA he got in 1957.

After a year at Chrysler, JZD was offered $14,000 to join Packard, where he worked under Forest McFarland. He became head of Research & Development. After Packard merged with Studebaker, GM’s vice president of engineering, Oliver Kelly, offered JZD a choice of jobs at GM. He joined Pontiac to work with Bunkie Knudsen and tap into the youth-oriented high-performance car market.


DeLoreanEarly Career at Pontiac

“Knudsen surrounded himself with young talent,” Keith J. MacDonald and Milt Schornack say in Milt Schornack and the Royal Bobcat GTOs. He acquired Estes from Olds and beat out four competing divisions for DeLorean. JZD joined  Pontiac in 1956, making $16,000. He created Pontiac’s “Wide-Track” stance (which sold lots of cars) and such things as the torque-box perimeter frame, recessed and articulated windshield wipers, lane-change turn signals, the overhead-cam six and Endura rubber bumpers. But it was his marketing skill that earned him most fame.

Jim Wangers—an acclaimed marketing professional—notes that JZD was “quick to understand advertising and marketing.” The sales success of Wide-Track Drive combined with JZD’s amazing marketing of the rope-drive ’61 Tempest put Pontiac into third place on industry charts. That made him Pontiac’s “boy wonder.” As Wangers learned after seeing JDZ and sales manger Frank Bridge battle over the GTO, he was “pretty good at corporate politics, too.”

JZD understood that racing and performance counted. His younger brother George owned Wynn Engineering and was one of the best exhaust header fabricators in Detroit. George raced Pontiacs and had a ’63 “Swiss Cheese” Catalina that clocked a 12:33-sec. run at 119 mph at Detroit Dragway. Wynn became Leader Automotive. In 1969, Leader bought the Royal Pontiac Racing Team.

According to Milt Schornack, JZD would hold impromptu brainstorming sessions with his engineers on Saturday mornings. At one session, engineer Bill Collins was looking at a ’64 Tempest pilot-line car. He told JZD and powertrain engineer Russ Gee how cool it would be to bolt a 389-cid V8 into the identical 326-cid motor mounts. Within a week, JZD had the prototype GTO built.


DeLoreanThe Performance Years

JZD used his skills in engineering and corporate politics to build the GTO and push it into the market against a company policy limiting mid-sized cars to 300-cid. He talked general manager Pete Estes into selling the package as an option and Estes put his job on the line giving it the green light. As noted earlier, Frank Bridge was against it. Bridge finally agreed to go along with building 5,000 cars, but as it turned out over 32,000 were sold and the GTO became a winner.

After the GTO, JZD was “gold” at PMD. He was promoted to General Manager in 1965 (at 40) — the youngest divisional head in GM history. But, the executive role was hard for him and he crossed swords with many other execs.

Wangers’ book documents JZD’s four-letter-word battles with chief engineer Steve Malone for giving out press cars. JZD had two big run-ins with GM chairman James Rouche—one in 1966 when JZD exhibited the XP-798 Scorpian/Banshee Firebird prototype at the New York Auto Show. Rouche felt it didn’t fit GM’s safety image and ordered it removed. JZD ordered the car put back. The next day Rouche attended the show, saw the car and flipped. He banished it to a warehouse in New Jersey. In 1967, Pontiac got caught cheating to win the Union Pure Oil Trials. Later, a Union Oil executive mentioned this to Rouche at a dinner. Rouche pinned the blame on JZD and cancelled his bonus.

After inventing the muscle car, creating the successful Firebird, siring the GTO Judge, developing the long-nosed ’69 Grand Prix and basically keeping Pontiac number 3 for a decade, JZD was shunted to Chevrolet. Perhaps GM brass thought the new Vega would keep him out of trouble. He did manage to re-organize Chevy and pull it out of a slump, for which he was named GM vice president of car and truck production, a rung on the ladder to the top.

By 1970, JZD was earning $200,000 and bonuses up to $400,000. He invested in the San Diego Chargers and New York Yankees and jet-setted to hang with people like financier Kirk Kerkorian and entertainers Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis, Jr. JZD’s rebel image, flamboyant lifestyle, ego and self-promotion didn’t thrill GM bigwigs. He could have settled down and almost certainly would have become president, but he wasn’t happy buckling into the stifling corporate environment. In 1973, he resigned to accept the presidency of the National Alliance of Businessmen, a federal government/auto industry trade group. In 1974, JZD married Christina Ferrare, his third wife and 25 years his junior. Ferrare played a nude, bisexual vampire in the B-horror flick Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary.

DeLoreanJZD wanted to build a rust-free stainless steel gull-wing sports car. The British government loaned him nearly 100 million pounds for a factory in Northern Ireland. The DMC-12 lacked real performance and its unpainted appearance was unpopular. Production began in 1981, but DMC fell into receivership in February 1982. It built about 9,000 cars before the Brits closed it in November 1982. The DMC-12 became best known as the “Back to the Future” car in a 1985 film.

Before the company was shuttered, Jim Hoffman, a drug dealer and FBI informant, contacted JZD. Over a period of time, the two set up a plan for JZD to back a smuggling operation to make money to bailout DMC. On Oct. 19, 1982, the FBI arrested JDZ for trafficking in cocaine. Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt came to his rescue with a videotape of the sting that put government agents in a bad light. JZD insisted police had asked him to supply the money to buy the cocaine. In August 1984, he was found not guilty due to entrapment.

In later life, JDZ’s image changed from that of trend-setting winner to  failure. He and Ferrare became born-again Christians, then divorced in 1985. He later married Sally Baldwin, who he lived with in Bedminster, N.J. In 1999, lawsuits stemming from DMC forced JZD to file for personal bankruptcy protection. On March 19, 2005, he had a stroke and died. He was 80 years old.

In October 2009, Jim Espey, president of a reorganized DeLorean Motor Co., announced his firm might continue building the Pontiac Solstice after GM completed the phase out of the brand.

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