Hero or Villain? (Part Two)

We continue the story of John Z DeLorean and remember the car that carried his name on the fortieth anniversary of its launch.

John Z DeLorean with his creation (c) carwalls.blogspot

The 1970’s was a truly miserable decade for the whole of Ireland. A sectarian conflict that had simmered in Northern Ireland since the island was partitioned in 1921 had exploded into violence and bloodshed in 1968. This unrest continued throughout the following decade, with bombings, assassinations and other terrorist atrocities perpetrated by paramilitary groups on both sides of the political and religious divide.

A consequence of the euphemistically-named troubles was that the already weak economies on both sides of the border struggled to generate growth and attract inward investment. Consequently, unemployment remained stubbornly high. The UK Government in particular saw economic deprivation as a root cause of unrest in Northern Ireland. In the absence of commercial investment, the public sector became bloated, exacerbating the province’s perennial structural deficit.

Onto this troubled stage stepped John DeLorean. The charismatic and smart former head of General Motors’ Pontiac and Chevrolet divisions had cut loose (1) in 1973 and founded the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). He was always an uncomfortable fit in a deeply conservative and hierarchical organization like GM, where many disliked his flamboyance, outspoken informality and growing celebrity status.

Although an automotive engineer by profession, DeLorean was a gifted communicator and salesman, and now he needed to sell himself to government and other backers who would finance his dream of building a futuristic but affordable mid-engined sports car with advanced safety features, to be sold primarily in the United States.

A concept was designed, called the DeLorean Safety Vehicle (DSV), and early sketches were of a car uncannily similar to the Bricklin SV-1, which provoked howls of protest from the latter’s eponymous creator. Had the DSV been anything more than a series of sketches at that stage, legal action might have ensued. By the time that the DSV amounted to something more tangible, Bricklin was defunct.

DeLorean DSV sketch from an early prospectus for the venture (c) entermyworld.com

As originally envisaged, the DSV would have a mid-mounted Wankel rotary engine supplied by the Citroën-NSU Comotor joint venture. It would also have a revolutionary fibreglass body using a system called Elastic Reservoir Moulding (ERM). ERM had been developed by Royal Dutch Shell in the 1960’s and was licenced to DMC. It had the advantage that it could be readily moulded in varying thicknesses, allowing easy incorporation of deformable crash structures.

The fibreglass shell would be covered by thin non-structural stainless panels. There were impressive (if implausible) safety claims made for this method of construction, including an assertion that the occupants could survive a 50mph (80km/h) collision unscathed.

All of this was just so much theory and a couple of plaster and wood mock-ups when DMC approached government agencies in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) and Northern Ireland Development Agency (NIDA) were interested in the proposal, excited by the prospect of the 2,500 new manufacturing jobs it would create.

DMC claimed to have 30,000 firm orders from US auto dealers for the proposed car. An IDA official flew to the US and visited a number of those dealers, only to discover that the firm orders were merely expressions of interest with no contractual basis. This news prompted Desmond O’Malley, Ireland’s Minister for Industry and Commerce, to exercise his veto and the IDA dropped out.

DeLorean said he was ready to sign a deal with the government of Puerto Rico (2) when NIDA intervened with a better offer, winning the project for Northern Ireland. In reality, the vast bulk of the required investment, estimated at $120 million, was provided by the UK Government. DeLorean and his backers (3) provided only a small amount of seed capital.

Construction of a 660,000 ft2 (61,000 m2) new factory in Dunmurry, five miles south-west of Belfast, commenced in October 1978. Meanwhile, DeLorean moved into prestigious offices in midtown New York, intending to manage the venture from afar. The prototype as presented to NIDA was effectively unbuildable, so DMC contracted with Colin Chapman at Lotus to develop it into something fit for production. Bill Collins, the prototype’s original designer, was sidelined by both Chapman and DeLorean and effectively ousted from the company.

The Wankel engine had already been abandoned following Peugeot’s 1976 takeover of Citroën and closure of the Comotor joint venture. The Ford Cologne V6 was briefly considered, then the drivetrain from the Citroën CX 2000, albeit with a turbocharger to increase engine power, before DMC finally settled on the PRV (4) Douvrin 2.7 litre V6 engine. This would no longer be mid-mounted: the DMC12, as it was now called, would be rear-engined.

Lotus discarded the untested ERM construction in favour of a steel backbone chassis to which was attached a conventional fibreglass bodyshell clad in heavy stainless-steel panels. This construction maintained the unique unpainted ‘brushed steel’ appearance of the car but added considerably to its weight.

1981 DeLorean (c) carthrottle.com

The factory had been completed on schedule in February 1980, but it would be another eleven months before the first car, now called simply the DeLorean, would roll off the new production line. Almost none of the newly recruited workers had any automotive manufacturing experience (or any work experience, in many cases) so early cars had numerous quality defects. DMC was forced to set up three US-based quality assurance centres to rectify faults before cars were delivered to customers. Quality at the Dunmurry plant gradually improved with the workers’ skills and proficiency.

A more fundamental problem was the car’s pricing in the key US market. In the pitch to NIDA, the car’s proposed price was $10,000 to $12,000, making it competitive with similar cars like the Chevrolet Corvette. Adverse exchange rate movements and the costs incurred during the protracted redevelopment process pushed the price up to $25,000 at launch.

Despite this, there had been a waiting list for the new car, driven in no small part by its creator’s celebrity and popularity. Monthly sales reached a peak of 720 in October 1981, but the US economy was sliding into recession, exacerbated by unusually severe winter weather, and sales started to fall just as production was being ramped up. By the end of the year there was a stockpile of 4,500 unsold cars. After sales in January 1982 amounted to fewer than a tenth of this total, the company was in a full-blown cash-flow crisis and the receivers were called in on 19th February 1982.

Stockpile (c) cnn.com

DeLorean’s dreams, and the hopes of his employees and investors, potentially lay in ruins. In Part Three we will examine the aftermath of the collapse and DeLorean’s life thereafter.

(1) Although DeLorean officially resigned from GM and was given a golden handshake that included a profitable Cadillac franchise in Florida, there were allegations that he had been briefing the press in his own interests and against GM management in the year prior to his departure. The franchise was, allegedly, in payment for his agreement not to return to the auto industry for at least a year.
(2) That claim was at least an exaggeration, and possibly an outright lie, as the Peurto Rican negotiations were allegedly stalled at the time.
(3) Two of DeLorean’s more famous backers were US talk show host Johnny Carson, and singer and actor Sammy Davis Jr., who allegedly invested (and lost) $650,000 between them.
(4) A Peugeot-Renault-Volvo joint-venture engine project.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

29 thoughts on “Hero or Villain? (Part Two)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I never knew the car was supposed to have fibreglass shell, but then again I’m hardly the expert on Deloreans. Looking forward to part three.

  2. Good morning Daniel. I accept that DeLorean was “a gifted communicator and salesman” but in my mind it raises the question – What was the Government of the day thinking of?
    I am often surprised that what would be considered as standard checks and balances seem to get ignored, and large amounts of taxpayers money then gets poured into a bottom less pit.

    Without wishing to get overly political that seems to have happened during the last twelve months too. Incredible!

    1. Hi Mike. You raise a very good question about the government and NIDA’s (non) exercise of due diligence on Delorean, which we will address in Part Three. With regard to recent issues, I imagine you’re referring to the £37Bn budget for the UK Test and Trace programme, but we’ll leave that discussion for other fora.

    2. Here is a picture of the DMC’s body understructure

      and the typically Lotus chassis frame

      That makes the DMC a Lotus Esprit with additional cladding in stainless steel effectively two cars in matryoshka doll style.

    3. Dave: There is the not so small matter of the Esprit’s (probably lighter) engine sitting inside the wheelbase (gearbox aft), whereas the PRV6 fitted to the DMC was mounted to rear of the axle line, with the gearbox ahead. Not quite identical therefore, I might suggest?

  3. I knew that early DSV sketch looked familiar:

    (Paul Bracq sketch of the BMW Turbo Concept vehicle)

    1. Hi Bruno. Likewise, I thought immediately of the 1990 E31 BMW 8-series when I saw the DSV’s front bumper/nose cone.

    2. You might think it wouldn’t be beyond Delorean’s capabilities, given all his auto industry connections, to get a draftsman to produce some original drawings. Clearly, the NIDA officials who examined the proposal were considerably less literate in matters automotive than DTW’s expert commentariat!

    3. The DSV is just a proof of concept, nothing mentioned about the car has any bearing in reality. Safety yada-yada, something glassfibre, whatever is the flavour of the week that would sell the project to potential investors.

  4. Encore un article passionnant, 1000 mercis Daniel.
    Concernant la DMC, j’en ai souvent vu à Paris lors de rassemblement de voitures anciennes.
    Elles font le show et tout le monde veut les voir de près … mais quant on examine la voiture, c’est incroyable comment elle est mal finie.
    Les portes qui ferment tres mal, les joints grossiers… le pire étant l’alu brossé qu’il ne faut pas toucher avec son doigt sinon vous faite une marque immédiatement !
    Le design tient plutot la route encore aujourd”hui , sauf l’avant de la voiture qui est trop fin avec des feux mal integrés (et souvent mal alignés).
    Hâte de lire la suite 😀

    Google translate :
    Another fascinating article, 1000 thanks Daniel.
    Concerning the DMC, I have often seen it in Paris during the gathering of vintage cars.
    They put on a show and everyone wants to see them up close … but when you look at the car, it’s amazing how badly finished it is.
    The doors that close very badly, the coarse seals … the worst being the brushed aluminum that should not be touched with your finger otherwise you will make a mark immediately!
    The design still holds the road today, except the front of the car which is too thin with poorly integrated (and often misaligned) lights.
    Eager to read what follows

  5. Hello Alain, you are right on both counts. Anyone who has stainless steel kitchen appliances will know exactly what you mean about their susceptibility to finger marks! Close-up, the Delorean had a rather home-made ‘kit-car’ quality that wasn’t up to the standard of its asking price.

    Bonjour Alain, vous avez raison sur les deux points. Quiconque possède des appareils de cuisine en acier inoxydable saura exactement ce que vous pensez de sa sensibilité aux traces de doigts! En gros plan, le Delorean avait une qualité de ‘kit-car’ plutôt faite maison qui n’était pas à la hauteur de son prix demandé.

  6. I’m really enjoying this series (as I do all the others). Thank you, Daniel.

    The development of the car, as well as its funding, seems very haphazard. DeLorean effectively ended up with a heavy Lotus Esprit with a Renault engine (my apologies to DMC fans). He can’t have been happy with that, given his original aims. Perhaps he hoped to get things up and running and do something better in future.

    Also, for someone who was great at marketing, surely he would have realized that producing a car in one colour is a bit limiting. Perhaps it’s just as well the concept was watered down – the massive emphasis on safety which existed when the car was conceived lessened somewhat in later years, making its would-be USPs a bit less interesting, if not less relevant (I guess it’s always good to have safe cars).

    I wonder if DeLorean was better when he worked under constraints – constraints which allowed him to focus – provided him with guidance, almost.

    1. I can’t help wondering how safe those steel cladding panels would be if they came loose when the car hit a pedestrian. I’m thinking of those stainless steel kitchen tools for slicing vegetables….

    2. Hi Charles. I’m inclined to agree about the colour limitations of the stainless steel cladding. Moreover, every photo I’ve seen shows, to a greater or lesser degree, a mismatch between the front bumper and adjacent bodywork.

      A number have been painted different colours. Here’s an example in red:

  7. J’ai lu que Delorean avait choisi l’acier inoxydable en autre pour ne pas à avoir une unité de peinture dans l’usine car il connaissait la difficulté d’avoir une bonne qualité d’application (il faut voir les problemes de Tesla à ce sujet…)

    Translate :
    I read that Delorean had chosen stainless steel in order not to have a painting unit in the factory because he knew the difficulty of having a good quality of application (we must see the problems of Tesla in this subject…)

    1. Yes, you’re probably, right, Alain. I was wrong about the DeLorean being heavy – it isn’t, particularly. That said, its crash performance isn’t very wonderful either.

      Just as a matter of interest, what site does your name link through to, Alain?

  8. Le site est en français , il est vraiment sympa et parle des automobiles d’une façon décalé et amusante.
    A voir ici :

    Il y a même un utilisateur qui montre tout les details de la DMC12 :

    (activez, si vous le souhaitez, les sous-titres avec traduction en Anglais)

    Translate :

    The site is in French, it is really nice and talks about cars in a quirky and fun way.
    To see here:

    There is even a user who shows all the details of the DMC12:

    (activate, if you wish, the subtitles with English translation)

  9. C’est le site POA (petites-observations-automobile suivi de .com)
    C’est un site sympa et décalé qui parle d’automobile, C’est en Français mais vous pouvez activer les sous-titres avec traduction anglaise.

    Il y a même un garçon qui présente sa DMC, avec des détails intéressants.
    Dommage, je ne peux pas vous mettre de lien direct sinon le message est effacé …

    Translate :
    This is the POA site (petites-observations-automobile followed by . com)
    It’s a nice and quirky site that talks about cars. It’s in French but you can activate the subtitles with English translation.

    There is even a boy presenting his DMC, with some interesting details.
    Too bad, I can not put you a direct link otherwise the message is deleted 😦

    1. Hi Alain. I rescued your earlier message from our spam folder and you will now find it above. 😁

      Salut Alain. J’ai sauvé votre message précédent de notre dossier spam et vous le trouverez maintenant ci-dessus. 😁

  10. The structure of the delorean reminds me of the fiero – i wonder what other cars there are with a similar panel on underbody based construction.

    1. The Citroen DS and Rover 2000/P6 were slightly similar in their construction.

    2. Also…
      GM U-body minivans (1st gen)
      GM Saturn S-series
      GM F-body (Firebird/Camaro, 4th gen)
      BMW Z1
      BMW i3

  11. I was always fascinated by the DeLorean story. Growing up when the Irish troubles were at their height, when every bin on a lamppost could hold a ticking timebomb, troubles indeed. I did feel that John DeLorean, desperate to save his dream from sinking was trapped into “one last deal” by the FBI. Desperate times, desperate measures perhaps? There was recently an excellent documentary on BBC2, DeLorean: Back from the Future. This is available for those who can access the BBC iPlayer to watch online, or, if you don’t mind staying up until 12:30am on Wednesday 17th March it is repeated on live TV. (According to the BBC website)

    I watched the programme and came away from it feeling sorriest for the employees in the factory. They seemed to have put their hearts and souls into making the dream a reality, only to have cruel fate steal it away from them. It also seemed as though in spite of the huge costs to the British taxpayer it had started to achieve the objective of healing divides across the workforce. Protestant, Catholic, Republican, Nationalist, all worked together and found that they were more alike than different. A great shame that it finally failed, through no fault of the workers.

    1. Hi Mark. Your observations about the dedication of the Delorean workforce are right. I spent some time working in Belfast in 1981 before moving there full-time between 1984 and 1986. The Dunmurry plant was known to be a haven of peace where the normally fractious relationship between working-class loyalist and nationalist communities was left at the door. The failure of the car was little loss to the automotive world, but the collapse of the business was a tragedy.

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