Conman, visionary, charlatan, megalomaniac, fraudster, charmer, embezzler, innovator, born-again Christian, criminal... genius. All these words have been used, rightly, to describe John Zachary DeLorean.
His remarkable life is the stuff of Hollywood movies – and, indeed, two have been made inside the last two years.
Both ‘Framing John DeLorean’ and ‘Driven’ (scripted by Bangor author Colin Bateman) are well worth a look, but it says a lot when charismatic actors such as Lee Pace and Alec Baldwin struggle to replicate the almost messianic influence the larger-than-life, 6ft 4in ‘John Z’ had on so many of those he met.
Although the American-born son of a Romanian father and Austrian mother, his name will forever be synonymous with Northern Ireland, his iconic, gull-winged, stainless steel car right up there with the Titanic on the list of legendary, ill-fated ‘Ulster’ engineering projects.
For four years between 1978 and 1982, the word ‘DeLorean’ was rarely far from the pages of the Belfast Telegraph.
Indeed, according to my research, it appeared nearly 1,300 times.
One of the first was on June 27, 1978 – a front page ‘splash’ with the banner headline ‘Belfast to get sports car plant’.
Written by Labour Correspondent John Kane, it revealed that Mr DeLorean had been consulting with the Republic’s Industrial Development Authority about setting up a factory in Limerick but had “broken off talks with them after approaches from government sources in Northern Ireland.”
It would later emerge that the IDA had actually said “thanks, but no thanks” after mulling things over for five months, whereas it took DeLorean only 45 days to convince the James Callaghan-led Labour Government to part with the first tranche of what would ultimately add up to £77m of taxpayers’ money.
Roy Mason, then secretary of state, insisted the DeLorean deal was of the “utmost political, social and psychological importance” to Northern Ireland, a potential “hammer blow to the IRA” and the first sods of the brand new factory were dug on what was once bogland in October 1978, just four months after that Belfast Telegraph exclusive.
Although retrospectively viewed as fiscal recklessness, Labour’s enthusiasm at the time was understandable given the chronic unemployment figures in Troubles-torn west Belfast, not to mention the swaggering, convincing and seductive DeLorean’s track record, which was every bit as stunning as his third wife, US supermodel Cristina Ferrare.
As reported in this newspaper, DeLorean made his name in the so-called ‘dark satanic mills’ of Detroit’s sprawling automotive industry; a smooth-talking, brilliant engineer who rose from the shop floor to become General Motors’ youngest ever vice-president and corporate pin-up boy.
He transformed the company’s Pontiac division by masterminding the Tempest ‘compact’ saloon in the 1960s – which sold 40,000 units in just two years – then repeated the trick with the GTO, the original American ‘muscle car’.
He was a multi-millionaire at 40, with matinee-idol looks, living a glamorous lifestyle and hotly tipped to be president of the world’s largest motor company.
But, after being forced out of GM for publicly criticising the perceived dogmatism of other senior executives, DeLorean began yearning for his own eponymous company – and the faraway, economic desolation of Belfast provided the unlikeliest yet most welcoming of settings.
And the car – looks-wise at least – didn’t disappoint.
The Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed, gull-winged, futuristic, revolutionary DMC-12 is one of the most recognisable vehicles in automotive history and still turns heads all over the world, four decades after the first of them rolled off the 2,600-strong Dunmurry production line.
At £16,283 it was expensive, left-hand-drive only, underpowered, beset by heavy steering and the unique stainless steel panels were anything but stainless.
Not only that, but the questionable build quality was microcosmic of a hitherto unskilled workforce which, like the cars themselves, was rather too hastily assembled.
The DMC-12’s sensational styling initially trumped all that, however, and Duran Duran pop star John Taylor was one of the first excited customers.
Despite sniffy reviews in the States – where most DMC-12s were bound – the order books were seemingly healthy when the Belfast Telegraph reported the first shipment leaving Dunmurry in April 1981.
The grateful, cross-community workforce appeared to operate in harmony in those early days too, despite a ‘separate gates’ story – Twinbrook Catholics using one entrance, Seymour Hill Protestants the other – emerging in the national press.
A DeLorean executive told this newspaper: “The story is true, but mischievous and misleading. They arrive from different directions, so they come in from different gates. There’s nothing more sinister than that, and there’s no separation when they’re on the factory floor.”
Not long after that first shipment left our shores, however, the wheels began – figuratively at least – to fall off.
The cars may have been, to parrot the old Titanic retort, “all right when they left us” but, behind the scenes, DeLorean’s infamous folly was already unravelling.
As early as August 1980, the Belfast Telegraph reported that the newly-installed Tory government had agreed to loan DeLorean a further £14m; less than five months later, another front page headline read ‘We need £10m quick’ after the company revealed they required funding to “tide them over until revenue from US sales starts to pour in.”
But a severe economic downtown in Ronald Reagan’s America, poor reviews of the first cars’ build quality and PM Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal parsimony combined to put father-of-two DeLorean in serious trouble.
Rather than cut back production and focus on improved quality, however, the tycoon did the opposite, in the belief that Thatcher would never leave such a large workforce high and dry.
He was wrong.
Not only that, but in October 1981 this newspaper reported that investigations had begun into “alleged financial irregularities” in the DeLorean operation.
With Thatcher making it clear that no more help would be offered for what she regarded as a brash egomaniac’s vanity project, phased redundancies – and false dawns about rescue packages – began in early 1982.
In May of that year, the Belfast Telegraph announced that the DeLorean dream was over, with the factory set to close.
There would be one more twist to the tale in October 1982, with the FBI arresting DeLorean following a drugs ‘sting’ operation in Los Angeles. The then 59-year-old was acquitted of all charges two years later, Cristina divorced him and he spent the rest of his life fighting off other impropriety charges linked to the Belfast operation, declaring bankruptcy, marrying for a fourth time and fathering another child.
He died, aged 80, in March 2005 and many obits were far from kind.
Ivan Fallon, then CEO of Independent News and Media UK, owners of this newspaper, referred to him as “the man who fooled the world.”
His legacy lives on, however, not least in that fabulous four-wheeled folly.
Of the 9,080 built, some 6,500 are still on the road. DeLorean had, after all, promised “a car that would last a lifetime.”
And of course there’s the enduring, immortal popularity of the DMC-12’s time-travelling role in the Back To The Future movies.
After the first blockbuster was released in 1985, the ‘rags to riches and back to rags’ Delorean wrote to director Robert Zemeckis, thanking him for presenting the DMC-12 as “the vehicle of the future.”
If only movie itself had travelled back in time four years, to west Belfast, 1981.
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