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How DeLorean's dream car crashed and burned

It's 35 years since the entrepreneur gave us the car of the future to end the Troubles. Ivan Little looks at why it all went wrong

Published 02/05/2015

Twin passions: John Z DeLorean with his wife Cristina and the gull-winged DMC-12
Twin passions: John Z DeLorean with his wife Cristina and the gull-winged DMC-12
The Back to the Future version
Gloria Hunniford at the time of the launch and DeLorean owners in Northern Ireland on the 30th anniversary
Robert Lamrock with John DeLorean

The initial DeLorean impressions from the newspaper photographs were impressive. The design was flawless, the look breathtaking, the style impeccable and the bodywork perfection. And that was just Cristina DeLorean. Her husband John's car wasn't half-bad, either, at its unveiling in Ulster Television's studio 35 years ago.

I was there to present a report on a court case, but secretly hoping for a sighting of the stunningly attractive model who had married John Zachary DeLorean, not just the one which he'd had built.

All around, grown men who should have known better were hot under the carburettor for the DeLorean, though its handsome innovator was definitely firing up the engines of women in Havelock House who envied Good Evening Ulster presenter Gloria Hunniford because she was interviewing him.

But for one employee in particular, that Wednesday - February 20, 1980 - changed his life.

Robert Lamrock was a young floor manager and his first glimpse of the DMC-12 imbued him with what he still calls "DeLorean fever".

He now has his own DeLorean and he is one of the prime movers in the thriving DeLorean Owners Club, which has fanatical members all over the world.

Thirty-five years ago today, the very first production DeLorean was shown publicly at an American dealers' convention, though in light of later developments in its founder's life, it's important to stress we're talking car dealers, not drug dealers here.

The prototype was the same one which was shipped across the Atlantic to make its Northern Irish debut on Good Evening Ulster, where Gloria was in the driving seat.

And Robert remembers it was a tight squeeze getting the wide-bodied car through the doors of the tiny Havelock House studio, which was almost too small to accommodate all the staff who wanted to see it.

Later that night, Robert, who had a cousin working for DeLorean, attended an open night at the car's Dunmurry plant for family members. And so began his near-obsession.

"I met John again and saw around the factory and I was fascinated by it all," says Robert, who will tomorrow join other aficionados of the car and, more importantly, former DeLorean employees and suppliers, for a special programme of nostalgia organised by Barrie Wills, who was director of purchasing/supplies for the Dunmurry firm.

He has tracked down almost 200 ex-workers all over the world and he said they all share a common bond - an unwavering pride in DeLorean, in spite of the car's ultimate failure.

"There isn't one person in the group we found who says anything other than that the period working for DeLorean was anything but the best time of their working lives," says Barrie.

Visitors are coming from Oregon, Texas, Rhode Island, South Africa and England and there will be a series of opportunities for the public to see a cavalcade of DeLoreans - including a replica of the one which shot to Hollywood superstardom through its transformation into a time machine in the Back to the Future movies.

The ex-workers will also have a chance to travel back in time with trips to their old factory, which is now home to the Montupet automotive aluminium foundry, and there will also be DMC-12 tours of the newly restored DeLorean kilometre-long test track.

The reunion won't just be the first, but also probably the last, and the gathering will pay tribute to 80 former DeLorean employees who are now dead, including the founder, who passed away 10 years ago at the age of 80.

With him, the former General Motors vice-president took a host of secrets to the grave about how he managed to defy all the odds and all his detractors' concerns to turn his DeLorean fantasy into reality. And, even though it was in the end a car-crash of epic proportions, he did manage to get the DMC-12 on the road.

Nine thousand of them were manufactured. And he did fulfil his promise of creating over 2,500 jobs in west Belfast.

For older people who remember the DeLorean years, it's impossible to overplay the impact that JZD's production of this particular rabbit from the hat had on west Belfast.

In some ways, it wasn't dissimilar to the one, many years later, in the east of the city after another band of America purveyors of fantasy rolled into town to make the TV epic Game of Thrones.

But if the Thrones' writer George RR Martin had come up with the JZD storyline, no one would have believed him.

And the only surprise is that although there have been no fewer than four separate proposals on the table, no one has ever made John DeLorean: the movie.

For it was a blockbuster that had everything. And more. Sex, drugs and the rocky role of a naive British government which was prepared to bankroll DeLorean with anything he wanted - £80m - in the fanciful belief that his car could help stop the Ulster troubles in its tyre-tracks.

Labour Secretary of State here, Roy Mason, who died recently, was particularly dazzled by Detroit's John DeLorean, an undisputed smooth-talker of a genius who had sped along the fast lane to the top of the US car industry and who had several destinations in mind for his own revolutionary, rust-proof sports car - including the Republic and Puerto Rico. But the British were particularly gullible about the gull-winged car and feared that JZD would divert elsewhere and so they signed a contract with him in July 1978 - in spite of concerns from their own people charged with finding foreign investment.

Mason called it a great psychological boost for Ulster and predicted it would be a hammer-blow for the IRA.

Significantly, too, he believed DeLorean when he assured him he had 30,000 orders for his car from 400 outlets all over America

And no one bothered to seriously investigate DeLorean's fanciful claims. And the Troubles didn't stop.

Yet the fairytale looked to be heading for a happy ending when the DMC-12 started to roll off the production lines in 1981 at the Dunmurry factory, which just 16 months earlier had been a green-field site on the fringes of the unemployment wasteland that was west Belfast.

But it was all too good to be true and the minor glitches with the car's design were overtaken by major problems with finance and, before long, DeLorean was going back to the government with cap in hand.

Margaret Thatcher wasn't the easy touch her Labour predecessors had been and wanted nothing to do with funding the flash American. And Westminster committees later said the entire expensive affair was a shocking misuse of public money.

There had been plenty of cheques, but few balances and all around Belfast rumours about JZD's extravagant lifestyle with Cristina went round the city faster than the car's top speed.

Reports said the high-fliers were jetting back and forward to palatial homes in America on Concorde and in Belfast stories that the DeLorean home at Warren House on Thornhill Road in Dunmurry had gold taps in the bathrooms were - and still are - the stuff of legend.

But John and Cristina apparently never stayed in the house, amid RUC Special Branch fears that they could be targets for IRA kidnappers, like German industrialist Thomas Niedermayer, who was killed by the Provos.

Another yarn which was presented as fact was that Rod Stewart had bought one of 100 gold-plated DeLoreans. Two were made, but not for the rock singer and they're in museums in America.

What wasn't an urban myth was that the car was the wrong product at the wrong economic time.

It didn't have the universal appeal that JZD imagined it would. Even on the affluent West Coast, where the cars were shipped, the $25,000 price tag was too rich for many Californians.

And, on February 19, 1982, just one day short of the second anniversary of its UTV launch, the DeLorean spun out of control into administration.

By the end of May, it was the end of the road. The dream, the dream couple and their DeLorean dream were gone.

JZD was soon back in the news and tried to jump-start a new car company, but fraud charges followed in his slipstream.

And worse. Pictures of the FBI arresting him in a drugs bust in 1984 in a Los Angeles hotel room with a briefcase packed with millions of dollars of cocaine went worldwide, but he walked free, with Cristina by his side, after claiming he was the victim of entrapment.

DeLorean enthusiasts around the world, however, reject any notion that the entire project was a total failure overseen by an out-and-out conman.

Barrie Wills, who is bringing out a book about the De Lorean Motor Company in October, insists: "John said he would build a car which would last 25 years. It's now 35 years and there are still 6,500 of the 9,080 DeLoreans on the roads of the world today. I doubt if any other car brand could claim the same."

Mr Wills says Belfast was missing a trick by not exploiting the tourist potential of the DeLorean car - especially in the wake of its movie fame.

He adds: "What there needs to be in Northern Ireland is a DeLorean equivalent of the Titanic Belfast centre, maybe not on the same scale, but I think it would be a major draw.

"The ship and the car were both failures, but they were both glorious failures. I describe DeLorean as the greatest near-miss in the history of the global automotive industry."

Mr Wills blamed the collapse of the car company on the breakdown of relations over money between John DeLorean and Margaret Thatcher.

"If they had been able to get on, there would still be a company here in Northern Ireland producing up to 100,000 vehicles a year as a subsidiary of a major global corporation. All it needed was for two people to behave properly."

Mr Wills says the PR value of the three Back to the Future movies would have been immense in guaranteeing DeLorean's success.

Robert Lamrock's car, which he bought in 1990 in Kansas City, is still going strong and appreciating in value, and it still turns heads.

"It's hard to express what the car is like without getting into it," says Robert, who produced an hour-long special on DeLorean for UTV in the 1990s.

UTV's Gerry Kelly travelled to New York to interview the fallen industrialist. He was not impressed.

Gerry says: "He was a real Machiavellian character. He believed all his lies. Here was a charismatic, good-looking man and you felt you were in the presence of someone. But having researched his back story, I knew everything that had happened intimately.

"He believed he did no wrong. And he believed that he had been set up with that drugs bust. I think that he went to his death-bed thinking that he had been right all along."

Gerry had never been a fan of the car. He did join the flock of UTV employees who saw it on that first day in the Ormeau Road studio and he later got to drive a DeLorean.

"I took it around the test track and it rattled all the way, but we were all so taken up with the whole hullabaloo surrounding DeLorean we didn't really see it for what it really was."

Suave American who us his vision of luxury motoring

The unveiling of the DeLorean DMC-12 was a luxury car launch like no other.

The car's creator and DeLorean Motor Company founder, John DeLorean, was a suave American from the US car capital of Detroit, where he was a poster boy for breaking the mould in the automotive engineering world.

  • 1973: DeLorean left General Motors to form his own company, the DeLorean Motor Company. The distinctive stainless steel car with gull-wing doors was a two-seater sports car prototype which was powered by the Douvrin V6 engine. Production issues with the car began almost immediately
  • 1978: DeLorean announces he will build an £18m car plant solely for the production of his new sports car in the unemployment blackspot of Dunmurry. The move was set to create 2,000 new jobs
  •  1980: Seventy acres of land is transformed into a modern car factory with an annual production target of 20,000 or more cars to be made for the American market
  •  1981: Production delays blight the release date of the car which is eventually unveiled to the world
  •  1982: Mediocre industry reviews of the performance car and negative public reaction do nothing to improve DMC's fortunes in an already downward car buying market
  •  February 1982: More than half of the 7,000 DeLorean cars produced remain unsold, with DMC 175m dollars in debt and the Dunmurry factory in receivership
  •  October 1982: John DeLorean is arrested and faces drug trafficking charges following an FBI sting. The tapes showed the car magnate agreeing to bankroll a 100kg cocaine shipment worth $1.8m uncut in exchange for a $24m cut of the profits when sold on the street. An informant for the prosecution said that DeLorean revealed that he needed the money to keep DMC financially afloat

Belfast Telegraph

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