He was most well known for developing the Pontiac GTO muscle car, the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car, which was later featured in the movie Back to the Future, and his high profile 1982 arrest on charges of drug trafficking, in an apparent attempt to raise funds for his struggling company, which declared bankruptcy that same year. He successfully defended himself against these charges, showing that his alleged involvement was a result of entrapment by federal agents.
DeLorean's father was a millwright by trade, the youngest of thirteen children, who immigrated from central Europe to America when he was twenty. He spent time in Montana and Gary, Indiana before moving to Michigan. By the time his son, John, was born, he had found employment as a union organizer at the Ford Motor Company factory in nearby Highland Park. His poor English and lack of education prevented him from higher-paid work. When not required at Ford, he occasionally worked as a carpenter.
DeLorean's mother was an immigrant from Hungary, and was employed at the Carboloy Products Division of General Electric throughout much of DeLorean's early life. She accepted work whenever found to supplement the family's low income. She generally tolerated her husband's erratic behavior, but during several of the worst times of Zachary's violent tendencies, she would take her sons to live with her sister in Los Angeles, California, and would stay there for a year or so at a time.
DeLorean's parents divorced in 1942, and John subsequently saw little of his father, who moved in to a boarding house only to become a solitary and estranged alcoholic. Several years after their divorce, John visited his father, finding him so impaired by alcohol that they could barely communicate.
World War II interrupted his studies. In 1943, DeLorean was drafted for military service and served three years in the U.S. Army before being honorably discharged, when he returned to Detroit to find his mother and siblings in economic difficulty due to the strains of Kathryn's single income. DeLorean worked as a draftsman for the Public Lighting Commission for a year and a half to improve his family's financial status before finishing his degree at Lawrence. DeLorean's final years at Lawrence were his prologue to his later contributions in the automotive industry, when he worked part-time at Chrysler and a local body shop. DeLorean graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.
Instead of entering the engineering workforce after earning his degree, DeLorean sold life insurance, and later worked for the Factory Equipment Corporation. DeLorean states in his autobiography that he sold life insurance to improve his communications skills. Both endeavors were successful financially, but DeLorean held little interest in these areas. DeLorean's uncle. Earl Pribak, a foreman at Chrysler's engineering garage, recommended he attend the Chrysler Institute, and DeLorean agreed. The car manufacturer ran a post-graduate facility which allowed him to advance his education while gaining exposure to real-world engineering.
In 1952, DeLorean graduated from the institute with a masters degree in automotive engineering, and joined Chrysler's engineering team. DeLorean also attended night classes at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business to earn credits for his MBA, which he earned in 1957.
Packard was experiencing financial difficulties when DeLorean joined, due to changes in the automobile consumer market. While Ford, General Motors and American Motors had begun producing affordable mainstream products, Packard, Ewing, and Marquette clung to their pre-WWII era notions of high-end, precisely engineered luxury cars. This exclusive philosophy was to take its toll on profitability. However, it proved to have a positive effect on De Lorean's attention to engineering detail, and after four years at Packard he became McFarland's successor as head of research and development.
While still a profitable company, Packard suffered alongside other independents as it struggled to compete when Ford and General Motors engaged in a price war. James Nance, President of Packard, decided to merge the company with Studebaker Corporation in 1954. A subsequent proposed merger with American Motors Corporation never passed the discussion phase. DeLorean considered keeping his job and moving to Studebaker headquarters in South Bend, Indiana, when he received a call from Oliver K. Kelley, vice president of engineering at General Motors, a man whom DeLorean greatly admired. Kelley called to offer DeLorean his choice of jobs in five divisions of GM.
DeLorean's years of engineering at Pontiac were highly successful and produced dozens of patented innovations for the company, and in 1961 he was promoted to the position of division chief engineer. He is credited with developments such as wide-track wheels, torque-box perimeter frame, recessed and articulated windshield wipers, the lane-change turn signal, overhead-cam six-cylinder engine, Endura bumper, and a variety of other cosmetic and structural design elements.
DeLorean's most notable contribution to Pontiac was the Pontiac GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato), a muscle car named after the Ferrari 250 GTO. It evolved from the practical 1961 Pontiac Tempest, which DeLorean later evolved into the Pontiac LeMans. The GTO debuted as a Tempest/LeMans option package with a larger, more powerful engine in 1964. It is credited for saving Pontiac from their dated stigma as producer of the "old lady's car" by creating a design that symbolized a generation of new, younger, more affluent drivers with a need for speed and style.
From its launch in 1964, sales of the car and its popularity continued to grow dramatically in the following years. DeLorean received almost total credit for the success of the "first muscle car", which is probably due in large part to his talent for self-promotion. As with any new vehicle development, scores of individuals are involved with the conceptualizing, engineering, and marketing – but John DeLorean became the singular golden boy of Pontiac, and was rewarded with his 1965 promotion to head the entire Pontiac division.
DeLorean was no longer a professional engineer. At the age of 40, he had broken the record for youngest division head at GM, and was determined to continue his string of successes. Adapting to the frustrations that he perceived in the executive offices was, however, a difficult transition for him. DeLorean believed there was an undue amount of infighting at GM between divisional heads, and several of Pontiac's advertising campaign themes met with internal resistance, such as the "Tiger" campaign used to promote the GTO and other Pontiac models in 1965 and 1966.
In response to the "pony car" market dominated by the wildly-successful Ford Mustang, DeLorean turned to the 14th Floor for permission to offer a Pontiac version of a similar vehicle then under development at the Chevrolet division that was set for introduction as a 1967 model named the Camaro.
Shortly after the Firebird's introduction in 1967, DeLorean turned his attention to development of an all-new Grand Prix, the division's personal luxury car based on the full sized Pontiac line since 1962 but whose sales were sagging by this time, for the 1969 model year that would have its own distinct body shell with drivetrain and chassis components from the intermediate-sized Pontiac A-body (Tempest, LeMans, GTO). The 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix looked a lot like a slightly scaled down Cadillac Eldorado with its razor-sharp bodylines and a six-foot long hood. Inside was a sporty and luxurious interior highlighted by a wraparound cockpit-style instrument panel, bucket seats and center console. The 1969 Grand Prix offered a sportier and higher performance alternative to the other personal luxury cars then on the market such as Ford Thunderbird, Buick Riviera, Lincoln Continental Mark III and Oldsmobile Toronado in a smaller size and lower price tag. The '69 Grand Prix was one of the industry's biggest successes that year with production ending up at over 112,000 units, far higher than the 32,000 1968 Grand Prix built from the full-sized Pontiac body.
During his time at Pontiac, DeLorean had begun to enjoy the freedom and celebrity that came with his position, and spent a good deal of his time traveling to locations around the world to support promotional events. His frequent public appearances helped to solidify his image as a "rebel" corporate businessman with his trendy dress style and casual banter.
Ralph Nader's book, Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1965, criticized a number of Detroit automobiles as poorly designed for safety concerns, including the Chevrolet Corvair model. Even as General Motors experienced revenue declines, Pontiac remained highly profitable under DeLorean, and despite his growing reputation as a corporate maverick, on February 15, 1969 he was again promoted. This time it was to head up the prestigious Chevrolet division, General Motors' flagship brand.
By this time, DeLorean was commanding an annual salary of $200,000, with yearly bonuses of up to $400,000. He had made sizable investments in the San Diego Chargers and the New York Yankees sports teams, and was becoming ever more ubiquitous in the popular culture.
DeLorean continued his jet-setting lifestyle, and was often seen hanging out in business and entertainment celebrity circles. He became friends with James T. Aubrey, president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and was introduced to celebrities such as financier Kirk Kerkorian, Chris-Craft chairman Herb Siegel, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson.
The executive offices of General Motors headquarters continued to clash with De Lorean's nonconformity, and he was still not able to fit the traditional mold of conservatism that was usually expected of someone of his stature. When John was appointed, Chevrolet was having financial and organizational troubles, and GM president Ed Cole needed a first-class manager in that position to sort things out — company man or not. The new model Nova was due out for the 1970 model year, and it was rapidly falling behind schedule. Redesigns for the Corvette and Camaro were also delayed, and unit sales had still not recovered from the past 4 years of turmoil, much of that due to the bad publicity surrounding the Corvair and well-publicized quality-control issues affecting other Chevy models, including defective motor mounts that led to an unprecedented recall of 6.7 million Chevrolets built between 1965 and 1969. De Lorean responded to the production problems by delaying the release of the Nova, and simplifying the modifications to the Corvette and Camaro.
He used the extra time to streamline Chevrolet's production overhead and reduce assembly costs. By 1971, Chevrolet was experiencing record sales in excess of 3 million vehicles, and his division alone was nearly matching that of the entire Ford Motor Company. Another promotion was imminent for De Lorean despite the deep-seated problems with the new compact Vega, introduced in 1971 as Chevy's import-fighter. The Chevrolet Vega suffered from cost overruns both on the assembly line and the showroom floor. The Vega's aluminum-block four-cylinder engine was prone to overheating, block warpage and high oil consumption and the Vega's body was susceptible to severe body corrosion, often dubbed as "the car that began rusting on the showroom floor." However, DeLorean is not entirely to blame for the Vega's woes, as that car was developed at the corporate level and handed to Chevrolet to build and sell just weeks before his arrival in 1969.
In 1972, DeLorean was appointed to the position of vice president of car and truck production for the entire General Motors line, and his eventual rise to president seemed inevitable. Instead, John De Lorean unexpectedly resigned from General Motors on April 2, 1973 at age 48, telling the confused press that "I want to do things in the social area. I have to do them, and unfortunately the nature of our business just didn't permit me to do as much as I wanted." GM gave him a Florida Cadillac franchise as a retirement gift, and DeLorean did in fact take over the presidency of The National Alliance of Businessmen, a charitable organization with the mission of employing Americans in need, founded by Lyndon Johnson and Henry Ford. GM was a major contributor to the group, and agreed to continue his salary while he remained president of NAB.
Patrick Wright, author and former Business Week reporter, approached De Lorean with the idea of writing a book based on his experiences at General Motors. De Lorean agreed to dictate his recollections for Wright, who would write the book. The final product, published in 1979, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, sold for approximately $1.6 million, but disagreements over the content led to a conflict between the collaborators and a libel suit against DeLorean. De Lorean claimed to have never received his share of the revenues.
DeLorean left General Motors (GM) to form his own company, the De Lorean Motor Company (DMC), showing a two-seater sports car prototype in the mid-1970s called the De Lorean Safety Vehicle (DSV), with its bodyshell designed by Italdesign's Giorgetto Giugiaro. The car entered into production as the DMC-12, but generally known simply as the De Lorean. The De Lorean's body distinctively used stainless steel and featured gull-wing doors. The production model was powered by the "Douvrin" V6 engine developed by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo.
The manufacturing plant to build the new car was built in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, with substantial financial incentives from the Northern Ireland Development Agency of around £100 million. Renault was contracted to build the factory, which employed over 2000 workers at its peak production. The engine was made by Renault, while Lotus designed the chassis and bodywork details. The factory started manufacturing cars in early 1981, but the company was in receivership by February 1982. It turned out around 9,000 cars over 21 months before the British government ordered its closure in November 1982.
When the Back to the Future film came out in 1985, featuring DeLorean's namesake car, DeLorean wrote a letter to Bob Gale, one of the movie's producers and writers, thanking him for immortalizing the car in the film. The letter can be seen in the special features of the Back to the Future DVD release.
Before the trial began, the FBI's videotape of the sting was leaked to the media by Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt. This prompted the judge to postpone the trial until the following year because of undue bias from the leaked tape.
DeLorean successfully defended himself with a procedural defense, arguing that the police had asked him to supply the money to buy the cocaine. His attorney stated in Time (March 19 1984), "This [was] a fictitious crime. Without the government, there would be no crime." The DeLorean defense team did not call any witnesses. DeLorean was found not guilty due to entrapment on August 16 1984.
In late 1982, DeLorean's legal troubles were satirized in the comic strip Doonesbury, in which the character of Uncle Duke travels to Hollywood to become a film producer and make a movie based on DeLorean's life story. In an ironic twist, Duke, in an attempt to raise the money needed to buy the rights to the story, sets up a cocaine deal and is arrested by undercover government agents.
DeLorean's name is most often seen spelled without the space, as DeLorean. Typewritten documents of the De Lorean Motor Company universally used the space, however, and this appears to have been the company's chosen form. In typeset documents, a half space, not a full space, appears between the two portions, and the same is visible in more stylistic representations, as on the automobiles themselves. This use of a half space probably influenced many people to see no space there. The company's founder originally spelled his name as John Delorean. The correct spelling of his last name as confimed by his Romanian relatives is Delorean. During the period the De Lorean Motor Company was operating, he used a space exclusively when spelling his name in the course of business.
DeLorean appeared in a widely published magazine advertisement for Cutty Sark whisky in the year prior to his arrest and the collapse of his company. It was captioned "One out of every 100 new businesses succeeds. Here's to those who take the odds."
In 1999, DeLorean declared personal bankruptcy after fighting over forty legal cases since the collapse of De Lorean Motor Company.