GTO: John DeLorean

People Culture

should John DeLorean be remembered more for the creation of American Muscle than for big money scams and novelty motors?

‘John Zachary DeLorean, engineer, car maker and conman, born January 6 1925; died March 19 2005’

So read the Guardian obituary of that day.

In Britain we remember him as the maker of the DeLorean – his eponymous, stainless steel, Belfast-born beast that tucked up the British government to the tune of $90 million.

Stateside he was known as a tax fraudster, big-time embezzler, cocaine smuggler and all round bandit.

What gets lost in all this is that in a former life John DeLorean was a brilliant young engineer whose technical and creative genius helped to turn around the ailing Pontiac division at the American giant General Motors and to launch that classic marque – the GTO. In turn the Pontiac GTO was the first true muscle car. And for that we owe a debt that’s difficult to assess.

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Born in the heart of Car Land USA, DeLorean’s DNA was pure blue collar Detroit. A gifted scholarship student, he ended up with a Masters in engineering from the prestigious Chrysler Institute.

His first job was with Packard, an old school car maker that looked like it might be stuck forever in the parking lot. He helped get it back on the road for a while and left there in 1956 after registering 12 patents, joining GM that year where he became the youngest VP in the history of the firm.

He was only 40. So where did it all go right?

To understand his rise to stardom you need to understand what was going on in the American car market in the 1950s.

When the young and gifted DeLorean graduated from Chrysler he didn’t stay with their huge and successful operation for long, instead he surprised many of his peers by taking a job at the struggling, old fashioned and much smaller firm – Packard.

This was a shrewd and calculated move by the ambitious engineer. He could see that as older, less dynamic talent quickly left the failing company he’d have a quicker ride to the top. Being a smaller firm than other Detroit stalwarts it also meant that the gifted engineer could get involved in all aspects of the production process. He could take, in other words, an idea from the drawing board to the shop floor. It quickly made DeLorean a car business all-rounder.

What DeLorean and some of the other young talent assembled by Packard could see (and this would also apply later at GM) was that the Detroit car makers were stuck in their ways and so were missing essential new markets.

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Packard – much like GM – were making big reliable cars for big reliable middle-aged men. Visionaries like DeLorean could see that they were ignoring two big emerging types of customer – young people and women. JD and his team started innovating. Personally he was working on the ‘Ultramatic Transmission’ – the first Automatic box in the states – which he figured would be a hit with the female driver.

Although Packard did eventually fall, John DeLorean left with those 12 patents to his name and was quickly grabbed up by the engineering team at GM.

At this time General Motors was divided up into specific divisions which had clear ranking in status and funding. The infighting and competition between the divisions was more fierce than with its actual market rivals such as Ford and Chrysler.

The big hitters in the firm were Chevrolet, the then best seller, and Cadillac – the high end and high profit division. Behind them lay Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, usually in that order.

It was into the Pontiac division, known then (most strange for us to hear now) as ‘The Old Ladies Division’ that the young thrusting John DeLorean got his start. By now his intuition about the growing youth market was being backed up by social scientists who were predicting the energy and spending power that would be brandished by the post-war baby-boomer generation. Yet Pontiac was still making huge boatlike machines for the older generation.

DeLorean saw his chance to shine. He and his team pushed against the corporate tide and got to work on a small car aimed at the growing young hot rod market.

Built out of Pontiac extant parts and bodies, he cut in half one of their V8s to make a four-cylinder engine, moved it from the rear to the front – inventing a new drive system (the ‘Rope Drive’) in the process – finally creating the 1961 Tempest.

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Pontiac were now in the (relatively) small car market, in no small part due to the efforts and skills of John Zachary DeLorean. The Tempest paved the way for what was to become his biggest success, the GTO which would rocket both him and the Pontiac division up the GM pecking order in quicktime.

This new lightweight, high-powered car took some of its design cues from European sports cars – DeLorean it seemed also had a genius for styling – but with much more power under the bonnet. That mix of styling and power appealed to the young Hot Rodder market that DeLorean had always known existed and became one of the best selling models ever to come out of the GM stable.

It was JD himself, also a marketing genius, who applied the title Gran Turismo Omologato; one which, already used by Ferrari, gave the car that European sports car appeal. Most people concur that the GTO marked the birth proper of the American muscle car trend. It certainly propelled DeLorean up the GM corporate ladder and it was perhaps in that swift rise that he lost his head.

Pretty soon professional obsession with youth had tripped over into his personal life. Giving himself the kind of makeover he’d perfected on the Pontiac brands he ditched his old wife, had a ton of cosmetic work done and started dating teenage models.

Collecting cars, properties, women and the heavy price tags that follow probably explain some of his later more dubious schemes to raise cash.

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And so he comes to Britain in 1978 pedalling a scheme to produce a stainless steel sports car with his new firm DeLorean DMC. His charm and marketing genius obviously worked on the British Government and they backed him with some serious Sterling – a good chunk of which he immediately skimmed off for himself.

It was a dodgy deal for sure but looking back it’s hard to see how he can be solely to blame. A charmer and a great salesman he certainly was but could the Government, Colin Chapman at Lotus and all the clever dick accountants at Arthur Anderson really think that a patch of muddy ground in financially and socially troubled West Belfast could be turned into a fully operational car factory in 18 months?

It seems a shame that this son of Detroit couldn’t be contained. The DeLorean may have evolved into something as influential as the Pontiac GTO – rather than little more than a novelty car with a Hollywood career.

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