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 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.
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.
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.