Belfast Telegraph

Back to the future: Why John DeLorean wasn't really the chancer they said he was

Michael J Fox in a scene from Back to the Future
Michael J Fox in a scene from Back to the Future
The De Lorean car
John DeLorean

By Harriet Crawford

It's always been known as a classic story of overreaching ambition and greed with a touch of Hollywood-style glitz.

Now new research could mean that everything you thought you knew about John DeLorean's ill-fated Belfast car empire is wrong.

The dramatic story of the demise of the iconic DeLorean Motor Company that brought Back to the Future's time-machine to Belfast and its Dunmurry factory is one of economics, not Hollywood, an academic has said.

The collapse of John DeLorean's firm and its Dunmurry factory in the 1970s is usually told as a story of greed and irrationality, involving either his flawed psychology or failed government industrial policy.

The popular myths surrounding the iconic manufacturer's spell in Northern Ireland fail to explain the "puzzle" of its failure.

Dr Graham Brownlow of Queen's University says that the institutional environment was to blame for the company's rise and fall Northern Ireland from 1978-82.

"It's not a Hollywood story of a flawed hero - it's an economics story," he said.

"Policy makers were desperate for something that was symbolically good and desperate for something that created jobs in west Belfast.

"They were essentially seduced that this was the right thing to do," said Dr Brownlow.

Taxpayers forked out more than the £84m estimated by the Northern Ireland Audit Office for this catastrophic policy mistake, he claims.

Inward investment in Northern Ireland had disappeared as a result of the escalating violence in 1971 and the UK Government put money into projects it hoped would reduce unemployment and civil unrest.

The entrepreneur successfully exploited the situation in Northern Ireland with the weaker official monitoring and more generous subsidy.

"DeLorean responded opportunistically to a set of incentives based on the desperation of officials and politicians for inward investment," Dr Brownlow's research states. DeLorean made "fantasy" commitments to the government.

The entrepreneur had estimated 30,000 cars would be produced a year - only 6,500 were ever produced, with just 1,600 ever reaching a dealership.

The cars were also sold for more than twice the original $9,000 quoted by DeLorean. In 1980, they had a $25,000 price tag.

Bad incentives determined how DeLorean behaved, but also how he tried to influence the institutions themselves.

"The rules of the game determine the players of the game, but it's not as clean cut as a game of chess; the players can influence the rules of the game to suit them," Dr Brownlow said.

DeLorean went on a hiring binge as the company disintegrated. He had negotiated an initial agreement that enabled him to protect himself at the expense of the taxpayer.

The more workers the firm hired, the more generous his subsidy package was and the more politically difficult it was for the authorities to close the project.

The 2,000 jobs the government sought were created - but they only last for a matter of months.

"DeLorean was very skilled at some points in shaping the rules of the game to suit himself," said Dr Brownlow

He made a fatal miscalculation, however, and overplayed his hand.

The firm arrived in Northern Ireland as a catalyst for further investment but became an obstacle.

The Government let the company collapse in 1982, the same year that DeLorean was arrested with cocaine with an estimated $15m value.

The DeLorean story as cautionary tale for inward investment in Northern Ireland, according to Dr Brownlow.

"People sometimes say that more inward investment will solve the problems of the economy, but you have to think about the quality of it."

He also warns that entrepreneurship is not "unambiguously a good thing".

"It might be good for the entrepreneur, but it might not be good for society."

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