Hero or Villain? (Part One)

We remember the life and career of one of the most polarising and controversial people ever to have worked in the automotive Industry, John Zachary DeLorean.

John Z DeLorean and his creation (c) Forbes Magazine

John DeLorean was born in Detroit, Michigan on 6th January 1925 to Zachary and Kathryn (née Pribak) DeLorean. Zachary was Romanian, born in the village of Sugág, which was in a region controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but is now part of modern-day Romania. He worked in a mill before emigrating to the United States at the age of twenty. After spells in Indiana and Montana, he moved to Detroit and joined the Ford Motor Company as a millwright.

It was in Detroit that he met his future wife. Kathryn was Hungarian and worked for Carboloy Products, a division of General Electric. Neither Zachary nor Kathryn had much formal education and took other casual work as they found it to support their family of four sons, of whom John was the eldest.

They lived in a tough, working-class district of Detroit, but managed to remain in employment through the years of the Great Depression. The relationship was, however, a volatile one because of Zachary’s heavy drinking and propensity for violence, and the couple divorced in 1942. Zachary became estranged from his family and descended into poverty and alcoholism.

By the time of his parent’s divorce, John was seventeen and had already proved himself to be an intellectually able and gifted student, having won a place at Cass Technical High School, where he studied electrical engineering. His success at Cass had won him a full scholarship at the Lawrence Institute of Technology to study industrial engineering. Based in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park, the Lawrence Institute produced some of the country’s best automotive engineers, and DeLorean excelled here too.

His degree studies were interrupted by America’s entry into the Second World War. DeLorean was drafted into the US Army in 1943 and served three years. Returning home after receiving an honourable discharge, he found his mother and brothers living in poverty, so took a job as a draftsman for eighteen months to help them out. DeLorean then returned to the Lawrence Institute and graduated in 1948 with a BSc in Industrial Engineering.

Although he had worked part-time at Chrysler during his last year at the Lawrence Institute, he did not initially seek further employment there, but sold life insurance, then worked for an industrial equipment company. DeLorean had a vocation for neither role, but had stayed in touch with his former colleagues at Chrysler. The company ran an in-house post-graduate degree course in automotive engineering. DeLorean secured a place and, in 1952, graduated with a master’s degree.

This earned DeLorean a position within Chrysler’s engineering team, but he stayed for just a year before joining its smaller and struggling rival, the Packard Motor Company. DeLorean was successful at Packard and was appointed Head of Research and Development after just four years. Packard was, however, being squeezed increasingly by its larger and more profitable rivals. It had merged with the Studebaker Corporation in 1954, a prelude to a planned further merger with American Motors Corporation, which was never completed.

DeLorean was contemplating a move to South Bend, Indiana, the home of Studebaker, when he was approached by Oliver Kelley, Vice-President of Engineering at General Motors. DeLorean’s admiration for Kelley was reciprocated and he was offered a job at the GM division of his choice. He chose Pontiac and joined in 1956, where he was appointed assistant to Chief Engineer, Pete Estes. Under the guidance of Estes and Pontiac general manager, Semon Knudsen, DeLorean flourished in his new role.

One of the trio’s highly significant innovations at Pontiac was the so-called ‘Wide-Track’ design. In order to make the cars look more dynamic and better planted on the road, the front and rear tracks of the 1959 models were widened by around 5″ (125mm). The change was simple and cheap, but highly effective in improving the car’s stance. 1959 also saw the introduction of the split front grille, which would become a hallmark of Pontiac styling thereafter. DeLorean succeeded Estes in 1961 when the latter was promoted to replace Knudsen. Knudsen was promoted to head up the larger Chevrolet Division.

Image: carstyling

DeLorean’s time at Pontiac is best remembered for the 1963 GTO, widely billed as the first of the US muscle cars. It was created by the simple expedient of taking the 389 cu.in. (6.4 litre) V8 engine from the full-sized Bonneville model and installing it into the compact Tempest, then dressing up the car with suitably sporting addenda.

This was actually in defiance of a GM policy that limited the engine size for compact models to 330 cu.in. (5.4 litre) but DeLorean circumvented this by offering the GTO spec as an option pack on the standard car. The GTO name was DeLorean’s invention, a blatant appropriation of the revered Ferrari model name, but he justified his choice by saying that it stood for Grand Tempest Option rather than Ferrari’s more evocative Gran Turismo Omologato. (1)

In any event, the Pontiac GTO would be hugely successful for a decade, become a model in its own right and push rival automakers to offer their own competitors. The GTO was much more a triumph of marketing than of engineering. Its cheeky name was early evidence of DeLorean’s growing aptitude for clever, if slightly dubious, marketing coups, not to mention self-promotion.

The GTO was a brilliant halo car for the division, which became GM’s sporting brand when previously it had no distinctive identity. DeLorean was rewarded for this success in 1965 when, at the age of 40, he was appointed GM’s youngest ever division head. In this role, his self-styled image as a buccaneering maverick, good looks and sharp fashion sense only increased his celebrity status. Pontiac became highly profitable and was a stepping stone for DeLorean’s further advancement within GM .

In February 1969 DeLorean was appointed general manager at Chevrolet, GM’s largest but troubled marque. Chevrolet was still suffering from the publicity disaster that had surrounded the Corvair (2) and numerous other quality control issues that had caused the recall of a record number of 6.7 million cars, further damaging confidence. DeLorean successfully tackled the problems by simplifying and streamlining model development and manufacturing processes, demonstrating again his abilities as a talented automotive engineer. Within two years, annual sales were exceeding three million vehicles and Chevrolet’s reputation and profitability had been restored.

1973 Chevrolet Vega (c) wheelsage.org

For all his success, DeLorean remained a polarizing figure within GM. His casual, off-the-cuff informality, celebrity and even his avant-garde fashion sense were an anathema to many of his conservative, buttoned-up corporate colleagues, who railed against his attempts to run Chevrolet as an independent company and personal fiefdom.

One event was undoubtedly highly significant in his decision ultimately to leave GM in 1973. That event was the development of the 1971 Chevrolet Vega, which took place completely outside his control and was foisted onto Chevrolet without his approval. The Vega was a poorly developed car that suffered many problems and again caused considerable damage to Chevrolet’s reputation.

DeLorean the salesman described the Vega prior to launch(3) as “…the highest quality product ever built by Chevrolet.” Already fully aware of the car’s multiple failings, DeLorean the engineer should have found those words hugely difficult to utter.

Notwithstanding the debacle of the Vega, DeLorean was appointed GM vice-president in charge of all car and truck production in 1972. This would normally be a stepping stone to the presidency of the company, but a significant number of his senior colleagues, appalled by that prospect, allegedly organised a whispering campaign against DeLorean, characterising his outspokenness as disloyalty to GM.

On 2nd April 1973, DeLorean announced his departure from GM to pursue other interests. Whether he jumped or was pushed is a moot-point. One suspects that, were it the former, it resulted from the realisation that he would never ascend to the top step of the organisation so, de-facto, he was pushed.

Part Two follows

(1) Omologato is Italian for homologated, meaning certified for a particular class of motor racing.
(2) The 1960 Chevrolet Corvair became notorious for unpredictable handling under certain circumstances, causing numerous accidents. GM was slow to acknowledge and rectify its weaknesses.
(3) In an interview with Motor Trend magazine published in August 1970.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

40 thoughts on “Hero or Villain? (Part One)”

  1. Good morning everybody! Great post Daniel. I’m fascinated by John Z. DeLorean, not so much for his car, but for his rise inside GM and his outsider, almost showman style contrasting with the conservative corporate culture back then in Detroit. The first celebrity car executive, perhaps?

    By the way, my first encounter with the DeLorean DMC-12 was in Southern California, early eighties, at a Chevrolet dealership that happened to have one on the showroom. As an 11 year old kid, I couldn’t miss the chance to sit in an exotic sports car for the first time ever, while my parents were finalizing the paperwork on our trusty new 1983 Chevrolet Caprice Classic. After a while playing with the buttons and steering wheel I got out and proceeded to hit my head hard on the door latch. I still remember the pain!!

  2. He was a charlatan and a grifter, and always quick to take credit for other people’s success. He was a grifter when he sold life insurance that was nothing but a scam and he was a grifter selling coke trying to save the car company. The story of the GTO name sort of explains his entire work ethics about stealing the thunder from other people, it is very very telling for his character.

  3. Once upon a time I assembled a portfolio on DeLorean on behalf of a film production company (for a project that went nowhere), so I read all the biographies available at the time. What struck a chord with me more than anything else was that JZD apparently was, for all his flaws and deficits, an outstanding engineer. But his issue – probably the biggest of a fair few – was that he simply wasn’t content with being ‘just’ an engineer. He wanted to be a big business entrepreneur, with the kind of lifestyle adequate for a master of the the universe. Hence DMC’s Park Avenue HQ, his commute to Belfast by Concorde via Heathrow, the former mannequin wife and so on.

    He wasn’t a complete fraud, but someone who considered the talents he did possess inferior, or at least far less important than other qualities he wasn’t in possession of. He wanted to be someone he could never be.

    1. Is there something of that character in a number of other car industry Icarus figures such as the fellow from Lotus (Bahar?), Dr. Z (to some extent) and maybe Henrik Fisker (not that I am accusing any of these three people of anything criminal, please note):

    2. I’d like to add to the list of shameless self promotors, halfway between genius engineers and borderline charlatans; Bob Lutz, Caroll Shelby, Victor Mueller (Spyker), Alejandro DeTomaso, Albrecht Goertz, Luigi Colani, Jerry Wiegert (Vector).

    3. I started to add to this list, and then I thought it is too easy. Could I name an engineer/executive who was considered to be a comprehensively great human being, universally loved and lauded, a hero who exhibited no overtly tragic flaws? Now that is hard! uh, Soichiro Honda?

    4. Bruno Sacco. By all accounts, a gentleman, and modest with it.

    5. Gooddog: I don’t think it’s possible to say with any real confidence or authority. Nobody who reaches a senior managerial or engineering position does so without making enemies of some description, either through politics or simple human nature. Even the people who might spring to mind probably narked someone off, or had to take action against someone or other along the way. Much of this depends on who one speaks to – since history is not only written by winners, but survivors.

    6. Point taken Eóin. Ingvar, dare I ask how Colani may have offended?

    7. My understanding of Goertz in this context was that he is said to have claimed to have designed certain vehicles others are believed to be responsible for – not that he was the first (or last) to fall into that particular category.

    8. Goertz only did two cars: the Toyota GT and er, something quite like it? Isn´t authorship of cars hard to define. Into such gaps can chancers slither.

    9. Goertz claimed for a very long time parentage over the Datsun 240Z design, a claim that Datsun/Nissan seems to have been unaware, or just left to the imagination, the unsubstantiated myth of the designer adding to the myth of the car. One could read such claims in all bioghraphies of Goertz until the late nineties. I guess Nissan has since tried to discretely clean up that mess, because I haven’t seen such claims since. The confusion seems to come from his involvement in a Yamaha concept that branched off to become both the Toyota 2000GT and the Datsun 240Z.

      @Goodog: I have Read a lot of unsubstantiated claims from Colani which usually are very broad and vague. Copied from Wikipedia:

      “His long career began in the 1950s when he designed cars for companies including Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Volkswagen, and BMW. ”

      Yeah, but what models? Which years? In what position? What exactly was his contributions? Did he design the whole cars or only parts of them? Alone or in collaboration with others? It’s just so very vague.

      Looking att his designs he has some really genius ideas. But the execution is also very often very amateurish? It reminds me more of folk art but in the technical field, he’s like a naivist artist that never went to art school or a car designer that never actually built a real car.

      I think his claims are so dubious I will disregard everything he claims that isn’t verified by the third part in question. What we’re left with is an incredible talented sculptor/industrial designer that likes to tell very tall tales.

    10. Thanks for your reply Ingvar. I found this article which adds some additional historical information about Coloni’s education and career, but does not quite resolve your misgivings, as the Wikipedia quote you cited is also repeated verbatim here, although implying that work took place in the post 1960’s period.

      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2019/10/31/luigi-colani-radical-maverick-designer-whose-curvaceous-streamlined/

      “The multilingual young Colani, whose teenage years took in wartime Berlin, dropped out of art school there and moved to France in 1949, working as a coal miner, jobbing illustrator and advertising artist.

      He then studied design at the L’École Polytechnic in Paris, and the Sorbonne. He worked for Renault, and Simca, helping construct Simca’s first glass-fibre car.

      Becoming fascinated by aerodynamics he went to California, where he worked for McDonnell Douglas…”

      I would tend to give him a certain latitude regarding these claims because we have for example discussed the late carrozerria Bertone’s B99 here knowing full well that it wasn’t sanctioned in any way by Jaguar, and that isn’t too far removed a situation from Gandini’s Ascot which never had a chance of being accepted for production. I don’t see a clear line of demarcation here so while some of Colani’s automotive work is, as you say, seeming naive, and to me in some cases even nauseating (1977 VW proposal), nevertheless I think his published public CV deserves the benefit of doubt.

    11. Hrm. I can share some of below the line commenters’ prejudices regarding hucksters and cocaine dealers. But I found this quote today:

      «GTO” never was used officially by Ferrari, so it was in the public domain for Pontiac to do with as they pleased.»*

      The article linked below claims the car’s official name was “Ferrari 250 Gran Turismo Berlinetta”.

      Similarly I think that “Daytona” is a strictly unofficial nickname for the 365 GTB/4. [No relation to the “Dodge Daytona” of course.]

      * Ferrari eventually used the designation formally and etymologically properly for the 1984 288 GTO.

      And this wouldn’t have been the first (1955 Chevrolet grille) or the only (1975 Chevrolet Monza) time that GM shamelessly appropriated unique IP from Maranello.

      BTW Mitsubishi used GTO (JDM only) during the ’70s and again in the ’90s, and even had a lower tiered model called “FTO” which they claimed stood for “Fresh Touring Original”.

      https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-2001-07-29-3372776-story.html

      And here is where I confess that I have taken to trimming my COVID beard rather specifically to compensate for my perceived “weak” chin. I think I’ll keep it. Also did I mention that I have tried cocaine, and that I dislike it intensely along with the associated culture and behavior patterns it tends to foster?

    12. gooddog: Those behaviour patterns – they didn’t happen to run to setting up a car company by any chance? It’s a known side affect, I’m informed.

    13. Beard trimming, Gooddog? It’ll never catch on. 😁

    14. Eóin, almost: bicycle parts (titanium sourced in Dearborn) and software (C++) . If only I had grown the beard sooner…

  4. What surprised me about John Z was his aftermarket chin – it wasn’t just the Pontiacs that got facelifts….
    Regarding his demise, it is not uncommon for people who are trying to save their business to bend the rules a little. The sort of folk who play by the rules seldom start their own companies, in my experience.

    1. “Aftermarket chin” Very witty, Mervyn, wish I’d thought of it! We’ll cover Delorean’s complicated and colourful personal life in Part Three.

      Hang on, I’ve got one: could it be described as a ‘chin spoiler’?

      I’ll get my coat…

  5. He was a very talented man, who worked hard and had good luck, but who also believed his own publicity, which became a problem.

    He got to the point where he was tremendously successful, and yet thought, ‘Is this all there is?’. It happens to a lot of very successful people – one ends up pushing the boundaries too far. A bit of failure is often helpful in keeping one’s feet on the ground.

    Speaking of luck, are you going to tell the story about the nuns, Daniel?

  6. Good afternoon all. I’m keeping quiet for now as I don’t want to scoop parts two and three of this epic tale. Charles, this tale is, from my perspective at least, free of any divine intervention, even via proxies, so fill yer boots! 😁

  7. Thanks, Daniel.

    I recall a couple of articles (at least) were published about John DeLorean by Car magazine.

    One includes the story of how he stopped to help some nuns who had a puncture and while assisting them, he mentioned who he was. It turned out that one of the nuns was the aunt of Tom Murphy, GM’s Vice President and DeLorean found out when Murphy sought him out and thanked him. Of course, it wouldn’t have harmed DeLorean’s prospects one bit.

    I actually heard a similar story of someone stopping to help someone change a tyre and the person they helped turned out to be the person who interviewed them for a job. That strikes me as a bit odd, as I wouldn’t want to risk getting dirty on the way to a job interview (or, indeed, being late for it).

    1. Not many people could fit a spare wheel these days – even 17″ rims are pretty heavy to manoeuvre onto a hub, heaven only knows what 19 or 20″ rims are like. This assumes you have a proper spare wheel of course…..

    2. Yes, true. Even the tyres themselves are surprisingly heavy. They’re wider and there’s more to them, than there used to be.

      Then there’s the deep joy of finding the alloy wheel has welded itself to the hub, as it did on my boss’s Peugeot 405 estate. A sharp kick dislodged it, but it took me two days to get my hands clean. I carried gloves with me in the car, for a long time afterwards.

    3. I’m onto my fourth ‘Porsche emergency tyre repair kit’ having never had the need to use one in anger. The sticky stuff has an expiry date and the kit is replaced when the car is serviced, at my expense, of course. 😩

    4. I’d reckon “helping old ladies in distress” would be a very valid excuse for a job interview. Counter intuitively it would say to me you actually got your priorities straight and could choose which one of two important situations were the most important in that situation.

  8. I always carry a rubber mallet in the boot, just in case – but I always use copper grease on the mating part of the wheel.
    If you do have a ‘flat’ on an alloy wheel, it will often be because of impact damage that has made the wheel unsafe.

    1. Or you have unavoidably made contact with a large piece of motorway debris, which is what happened to me on the M4 towards South Wales to catch a Ferry to Rosslare a number of years ago. Not a pleasant afternoon…

    2. I had a nasty experience going around the Wandsworth roundabout on my motorbike back in the early 1990’s. As I was about to leave the roundabout, someone pulled directly across in front of me, having failed to see me. I took the only avoiding action I could and hit the kerb of the traffic island square on, which launched the bike into the air. It came crashing back down onto both wheels. Amazingly, I managed to stay upright and pull up safely. Both front and rear alloy wheels were badly warped by the impact and had to be replaced. Needless to remark, the driver who caused the incident didn’t hang around to give me his insurance details…

    3. Never, ever should any grease or other friction reducing material be used on the mating surfaces of hub and wheel. This area isn’t unpainted without reason.
      These surfaces just should be kept clean and corrosion free (there are special nylon brushes for that job that can be used in an electric drill) but under no circumstances should anything other than clean air be applied there. You can put a very small amount of something on the center-up flange but care must be taken that this stuff can not get between wheel and hub by centrifugal forces.

      Contrary to popular belief it isn’t the wheel bolts that transfer the forces between hub and wheel, this job relies purely on friction between those surfaces. The friction is created by pressing the wheel onto the hub by torquing the bolts but the bolts themselves are not exposed to any lateral forces. If there is any grease (or paint) this friction is reduced which can lead to forces being actually transferred to the bolts which in turn could break/snap as a result.
      For German TÜV grease in this area is reason for an MoT failure.

  9. I´d like to note that Pontiac moved into a strong position in design space with the split grille (de Lorean supported this style). It´s visually distinctive and better than the (never used?) three way split. It is this puzzling that BMW is painting out and otherwise obscuring the important vertical division between the left and right parts of their “kidney” grille theme. As others have noted the shape of the newer BMW grilles begins to resemble Kia´s tiger mouth grille.

    1. They did try a three way split for one year on the 1962 Tempest.

    2. That doesn´t look like a three way split to me. It looks like one area defined by a chrome edge. That´s not to say I can´t see three bit but the whole dominates the parts.

  10. DeLorean initiated project XP-833 in 1963. Even if you’ve never heard of this car, it will likely seem very familiar.

    Intended as a 2 seater, but with a solid rear axle, it would have been positioned in the GM lineup between the Camaro and the Corvette. Although XP-833 was not approved for production, I think it is very important piece of DeLorean’s complicated and ultimately tragic legacy.

    https://www.motortrend.com/news/12q1-1965-pontiac-banshee-xp-833/

    1. The XP-833 also shows that a front end could be visually dominated
      by a huge, split, two-piece grille, and still end up looking
      unobtrusive and coherent.

      Today’s average buyer, though, seems thirsty for incoherent
      and obtrusive ‘facial expressions’ on their cars.

      (‘Fear of the others’ as a societal paradigm is a palatable
      way of explaining its de-urbanizing, ugly rise).

  11. That reminds me – I found a German YouTube channel which did a tour of Opel’s prototype collection. It includes the GT. There was (is) a lot of design talent at Opel.

  12. Following upon 2019’s “Framing John DeLorean”, BBC One’s “DeLorean: Back from the Future”, and BBC Four’s “Car Crash: The Delorean Story”, “Myth and Mogul: John DeLorean” a three episode TV documentary has just been released on Netflix. Can anyone get enough of this story? See the trailer here: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3288449049/

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