Belfast Telegraph

DeLorean: Death of a salesman

The death of John Z DeLorean brought down the curtain on a larger-than-life career. Ivan Fallon recalls the spectacular rise and fall of the man who brought car making to Dunmurry

The death of John Z DeLorean brought down the curtain on a larger-than-life career. Ivan Fallon recalls the spectacular rise and fall of the man who brought car making to Dunmurry

Seldom had there been a more public, dramatic, fall from grace. The images of John Z DeLorean, the glitzy, silver-haired "acceptable face" of the American car industry, flashed around the world, soon to lead every news programme and front page.

There he was, ruffled and ashen-faced, hands manacled, walking towards the police car that would take him away to jail and disgrace.

It was October 20, 1982, and DeLorean was a legend to a generation of Americans who had been brought up on the story of the man who conceived the Pontiac GTO, the car that caught the imagination of the youth of America in the 1960s and inspired a singing group called Ronnie and the Daytonas, whose record about the car topped the hit parade.

By an odd irony, it was also election day in Northern Ireland where DeLorean had built the most talked about car plant in the western world, manufacturing his "dream" DMC-12 stainless steel sports car with its distinctive gull-wing doors (as seen in the film "Back to the Future").

The story hit Belfast like a hurricane that DeLorean had been arrested in a Los Angeles airport hotel and charged with taking part in a plot to smuggle 100 kilos of cocaine.

US Justice Department officials claimed DeLorean was making a last-minute effort to raise the money needed to save his bankrupt car company.

In a web of myths, deception, spin and disinformation, the latter claim was probably true. DeLorean would literally have done anything to save his precious car plant.

For an all-too brief few years, he had brought hope to the beleaguered province.

He had built a gleaming new factory on a greenfield site in West Belfast and at its peak, the factory employed 2,500 people, taken equally from the Catholic Twinbrook estate where Bobby Sands came from, and Protestant Dunmurry.

But now it had all rebounded, into acrimony and political finger-pointing. In Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher could scarcely contain her glee. Although she had never met DeLorean, she hated the way he had blackmailed and pressured her into ploughing yet more millions of government cash into a project the Treasury told her was doomed.

When Bobby Sands died after eight weeks of hunger strike, Twinbrook erupted and the rioting spilled into the DeLorean factory, DeLorean demanded yet another tranche of cash - and Thatcher had to give it.

Now with his arrest she could dismiss it all - and she did - as the madness of the previous Labour government.

Looking back, it is difficult now to explain the power that DeLorean had at the time. In my role as a City editor, I interviewed him half a dozen times and attempted to unravel and expose what I distantly perceived to be a scam pulled on the British taxpayer.

And, although deLorean regarded me as an enemy, he had agreed to one final "clean-up" interview in New York.

To say I was as astonished as everybody else when he walked into an elaborate FBI trap would be an understatement.

In the weeks and months that followed, the accountants, lawyers and rueful Northern Ireland officials finally proved DeLorean had indeed been defrauding his own company.

Millions would later be traced through Swiss bank accounts to DeLorean.

The drugs scheme, by contrast, began to emerge only in the spring of 1982. But the two activities soon became dependent parts of the events which ended up with DeLorean, caught by half a dozen concealed FBI cameras, hefting a bag of coke and remarking, with a loud chortle: "It's better than gold. Gold weighs more than that for God's sake".

Back in 1982 - after £84m of investment - Belfast residents had proudly watched transporters laden with silver sports cars trundle off towards the American market which everyone believed eagerly awaited. In those years, the cracks in DeLorean's reputation had begun to appear and by the end were gaping holes.

DeLorean always claimed he had fired General Motors - but it was the other way around.

There was also a trail of fraud going back 20 years which, when revealed, caused consternation in Belfast and London. Why, ministers muttered, had no one investigated properly?

One reporter once dared to voice what everyone was privately thinking: "Isn't it a rather high-risk venture?"

Not at all, replied DeLorean smoothly. "We have orders as of now for 30,000 cars. That is $$300m of business."

The statistics told a very different tale. Those 30,000 orders, never queried, were merely "expressions of interest." The DeLorean factory produced a sum total of 8,900 cars - and less than half were sold.

The car itself was also a fraud. DeLorean's great "dream" was that he was going to build the car that Detroit would never let: a car with a radical new design, built of new rust-proof materials, which would be safe and economical and would not be a "con". He called it his "ethical car".

In fact it was a very ordinary vehicle, hastily put together from standard components.

Porsche took a minimum of six years to design and engineer a new car. DeLorean persuaded the late Colin Chapman of Lotus to do it in two.

Chapman, then at the height of his Grand Prix career, only agreed after DeLorean offered him a large bribe: he would split the $$16.5m he had raised from investors to put into the project in Belfast. The trail of DeLorean's half was later uncovered but Chapman took the secret to his early grave.

To this day, Americans are reluctant to accept DeLorean was a crook. Bizarrely, he even escaped a jail sentence on the drugs bust.

The chief prosecutor portrayed him as "the face of greed, the face of evil" but DeLorean displayed then announced, he had discovered Jesus, aided and counselled by the ex-Watergate man Chuck Colson.

When he declared from the court steps that "as a Christian, I have no animosity, no grudges against any of these people," it was game set and match to DeLorean. He had won his way back into American hearts.

He never showed his face in Belfast again, and died, aged 80, his dream still unfulfilled.

Ivan Fallon is chief executive of Independent News & Media (UK) and the author of the book DeLorean: The Rise and Fall of a Dream Maker.


From Belfast Telegraph