John DeLorean was the legendary American automobile executive whose non-conformity and taste for the limelight derailed him likely ascension to the presidency of General Motors, which seemed predestined after his meteoric rise up through the ranks for the world’s biggest car manufacturer. DeLorean, in sync with his times, had a distaste for the “Establishment” as embodied in the G.M. bureaucracy, which he found stifling. By leaving GM to establish his own car company, DeLorean set in motion a turn of the wheel of fate that would revolve him from the top of the industry to the bottom in less than a decade.
John Zachary DeLorean was born on January 6, 1925 in Detroit, Michigan, the oldest of the four sons of Zachary DeLorean, a Romanian immigrant who worked as a millwright at Ford Motor Co., and his wife Kathryn Pribak, a Hungarian immigrant who worked at General Electric. DeLorean grew up in a tough, working class neighborhood, though because both parents were employed during the Great Depression, his life wasn’t as harsh as that experienced by many of his peers. His parents divorced in 1942 due to his father’s alcoholism and propensity for violence.
Young John won a scholarship to Lawrence Institute of Technology, which had produced many automobile designers for the auto industry. However, World War II intervened: Drafted in 1943, DeLorean spent three years in the Army. He went back to school after the war and earned a B.S in mechanical engineering while working part-time for Chrysler. After a short stint as a life insurance salesman after graduation, he returned to Chrysler. (To many of his critics, DeLorean would remain a salesman whose main product he pitched was himself.) From Chrysler, he moved on to Packard, but the imminent failure of the once-prestigious car maker lead him to accept a job offer at G.M., where he made his fortune.
Credited with creating the first “muscle car”, the Pontiac G.T.O., DeLorean at 40 became the youngest divisional head in G.M. history when he was appointed president of the division in 1965. Eventually, he was moved to head the troubled Chevrolet Div., the biggest and most important component of G.M. He successfully reorganized Chevrolet, which was in a slump, and was rewarded by being named vice president of car and truck production, a stepping stone to the presidency of the entire company. However, DeLorean’s non-conformist lifestyle, his taste for the limelight, and his relentless self-promotion didn’t sit well with all of G.M.’s top brass. He could have remained at the company and likely would have achieved the presidency, but he found the company stifling. In 1973, DeLoran quit G.M. with the idea of forming his own car company. However, at first, he accepted the presidency of the National Alliance of Businessmen, a trade group organized by the federal government and the auto industry, including G.M., thus maintaining his links to the industry. (In 1979, when he was on the verge of launching De Lorean Motor Co., he published an expose of his time at the company, “On a Clear Day, You Can See General Motors”. The book would eventually sell over a million-and-a-half copies.)
The year following his departure from G.M., DeLorean married his third wife, fashion model, cover girl and actress Cristina Ferrare, who was 25 years his junior. A media celebrity since the 1960s, DeLorean had long been moving in show business circles, and met Ferrare at a charity event. Ferrare’s sole leading role in motion pictures would prove to be the B-horror movie “Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975), a cheapen shot in Mexico featuring his beautiful, young wife as a bisexual vampire. (The movie flopped despite the erotic nude scenes featuring the new Mrs. DeLorean).
DeLorean’s dream of creating his own company finally became a reality when the British Labour Government of James Callaghan came up with nearly 100 million pounds in financing to build a factory in Northern Ireland to produce a DeLorean-designed futuristic sports-car, which would be known as “The De Lorean”. (The car, with its 304 grade stainless steel body and gull-wing doors hearkening back to the 1960 Mercedes coupe, later would be immortalized in the Back to the Future (1985) movie trilogy). As his wife Cristina’s career as a TV personality rose, DeLorean’s business fortunes crashed. The car company that bore his name went bankrupt. In 1982, a desperate John DeLorean was trapped in a sting operated by the F.B.I. and charged with trafficking in cocaine, to raise money to refinance his car company.
After his arrest, both DeLorean and Ferrare became born-again Christians. Ferrare stood by her husband during the two year legal ordeal that followed, and DeLorean eventually was acquitted in August 1984, successfully using a defense of entrapment. However, his wife had realized her marriage had been, in her own words, “shallow” and “make-believe”, and she had known their marriage was over long before it was officially ended. After DeLorean’s acquittal, Ferrare sought a divorce, which was granted in 1985. Ferrare, that same year, married entertainment industry executive Tony Thomopoulos, whom she has been married to for 22 years and has been the stepfather to her two children by DeLorean. .
John DeLorean never recovered professional from the failure of his car company. His public image went from that of renegade and maverick, an automotive Ted Turner, someone who bucked the System, to pathetic loser. If nothing succeeds in America like success, nothing dehumanizes an American “hero” of the moment like failure. DeLorean was plagued for years by investors’ lawsuits linked to the collapse of De Lorean Motor Co., and in 1999, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. By the time of his death of a stroke in 2005, at the age of 80, he was largely a forgotten man, remembered mostly as a victim of his own hubris. F. Scott Fitzgerald had said there are no second acts in America, and John DeLorean proved to be the living proof of the wisdom of those words.