John Zachary DeLorean,
the dashing former General Motors
whose flamboyant lifestyle faded into obscurity
after charges that he tried to use drug money
to salvage his own fledgling car company
DeLorean Motor Car Co., passed away
at the age of 80.
innovative car maker-tall, handsome, charismatic,
known for his flashy clothes, his lavish
tastes and the beautiful women who accompanied
him - was acquitted in 1984 of the drug and
conspiracy counts against him, but his DeLorean
Motor Co. had been fatally wounded.
being videotaped in the act of apparently
buying cocaine-and pronouncing it "better
DeLorean never admitted guilt in the case
that led to his arrest in a Los Angeles hotel
room on Oct. 19, 1982. He claimed instead
that he was the victim of a government frame-up
by drug agents and prosecutors bent on self-promotion,
and the jury apparently agreed with him.
However, after becoming a self-described
born-against Christian during the months
while he awaited trial, DeLorean did concede
that, over the years, there were some things
he had done wrong.
"I think my ultimate
sin-and it was really terrible-was that
I had this insatiable pride," he told
journalist Robert Scheer in a Playboy magazine
interview about two years after the acquittal. "Looking
back at it, I see that I had an arrogance
that was beyond that of any other human being
Few debated that point.
But if there was pride, it was based, at
least in part, on the remarkable achievements
of a man from humble beginnings. Born in
Detroit to immigrant parents in January,
1925, DeLorean was reared in a working-class
neighborhood about a mile from the Ford Motor
Co. plant where his father, an abusive alcoholic,
was a foundry worker and a union organizer.
Success in elementary school won DeLorean
admission to a high school for gifted students,
where he did so well that he was awarded
a scholarship to the Lawrence Institute of
Technology, a small college in Detroit. After
time out for brief and unremarkable stateside
military service during World War II, he
earned undergraduate and graduate degrees
from Lawrence and the Chrysler Institute
and found work as an engineer, first with
the Packard Motor Car. Co. and then with
It was at GM that DeLorean's
career-and his reputation for creative thinking
and bold marketing-began to soar. In 1961,
he was named chief engineer at GM's Pontiac
Division, eventually holding more than 100
patents for innovative designs. His introduction
of two "muscle
cars"-the GTO and the Firebird-that
proved enormously popular with young buyers
led to his being named head of the division
At that point, DeLorean's lifestyle
still conformed to GM's image of an executive.
He cut his hair short, wore conservative,
three-piece suits and began to put on weight.
He and his wife, the former Elizabeth Higgins,
belonged to the right country club and attended
the right social functions. But all that
began to change. DeLorean divorced his wife,
underwent cosmetic surgery, let his hair
grow, dyed it to cover the gray, went on
a diet, abandoned the button-down look for
monogrammed shirts with plunging necklines
and-most rebellious of all-drove a Maserati
instead of a Corvette.
The news media lapped
it all up, especially his dates with such
fabled beauties as Candice Bergen and Ursula
Andress. In 1969, after a brief courtship,
he married model Kelly Harmon, the stunningly
attractive daughter of University of Michigan
football hero Tom Harmon. DeLorean was 45
at the time, his bride was 20. On GM's top
perch-the hallowed 14th floor of the executive
headquarters in Detroit-DeLorean was ruffling
feathers. His lifestyle was bad enough, and
his advocacy of major changes at GM-such
as abandoning some of the big cars in favor
of smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, was
But despite opposition
at some of the highest levels, DeLorean's
ascendancy at GM continued. His introduction
of the Monte Carlo model after being named
head of the Chevrolet Division in 1969 enriched
GM's coffers. And, as the introduction of
Volkswagen's fabled "beetle"
was fast demonstrating, his advocacy of smaller
cars had been right on the money.
a few years, he was promoted again, to chief
of GM's truck and car division, with the
then-awesome salary of more than $600,000
a year. Nonetheless, in April, 1972, as industry
pundits were beginning to talk about him
as the next president of GM-the largest corporation
in the world-DeLorean resigned.
I would never be happy in the headquarters
environment," he said later. "I
wasn't a team player." DeLorean's marriage
to the former Kelly Harmon had been fast
unraveling, and it was about then that he
met another beauty-model Cristina Ferrare,
a companion of millionaire electronics executive
Fletcher Jones. In November, 1972, Jones
was killed in a plane crash near his sprawling
ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.
"Cristina, who had become accustomed
to traveling with wealthy men, now became
my companion," DeLorean wrote later in
his autobiography, co-authored with writer
Ted Schwartz. DeLorean said he told Ferrare:
"You're a very cute girl, like a painting
on the wall. Right now, you're hanging on
my wall, but some other time, you might be
hanging on someone else's wall." "I
enjoy the company of attractive women,"
he explained in his book, adding with characteristic
aplomb: "I've always had a tendency
to associate with women who were dramatically
less educated than I."
Despite what DeLorean
clearly perceived as an unequal partnership,
Ferrare moved in with him. Two months later-with
his divorce from Kelly Harmon DeLorean his
second wife completed-DeLorean and Ferrare
were married. He was 48, she was 22. Whatever
their differences, the newlyweds' life was
opulent. They shared four homes that eventually
included a 434-acre estate in the exclusive
fox-hunting country of Bedminster Township,
N.J. They dined at Maxim's, overnighted at
the Savoy and hobnobbed with the powerful
Ferrare once celebrated their
status on a needle-pointed pillow: "Nouveau is better
than not Riche at all." By the end of
1973, DeLorean had decided to set up a network
of companies to design, manufacture and market
a sports car in his own image-sleek, fast
and glamorous. It would be called-naturally-the
DeLorean was at his persuasive
best in those days. He got the British government
to invest more than $140 million in the venture
in hopes of stimulating the economy in Belfast,
North Ireland, where a modern plant was constructed.
American investors put up another $31 million-among
them entertainers Johnny Carson, who contributed
$500,000, and Sammy Davis Jr., who coughed
The rear-engine, gull-winged,
stainless-steel car that emerged in 1981
was well received at first and developed
a cult following which helped propel it into
the "Back to the
Future" films..., but the $25,000 price
tag was a good bit higher at the time than
that of the principal competition-GM's Corvette.
Unsold DeLoreans began piling up at dealerships.
The factory only produced about 8,900 cars
in three years, and many of those went unsold.
of cash, DeLorean asked the British government
for another $30 million. Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher, already under fire for the earlier
investment, turned him down. In February,
1982, the British government declared the
DeLorean Motor Co. insolvent and appointed
a receiver to take over the firm. "I began to spend every waking
moment seeking investors," DeLorean wrote.
"I could not afford to ignore anyone."
of those he chose not to ignore was James
Hoffman, a sometime drug smuggler, convicted
perjurer and admitted tax evader who lived
near DeLorean's sprawling home in rural San
Diego County. Hoffman would become a paid
informant for the FBI. On Oct. 19, 1982, under
the unblinking eye of a hidden video camera,
DeLorean was arrested by FBI agents at the
Sheraton Plaza La Reina Hotel near Los Angeles
International Airport. Agents said he was
part of a scheme to shore up the sagging
finances of his company by buying-and then
reselling, at enormous profit-220 pounds
of cocaine from Colombia.
Two associates in
the purported deal-Stephen Lee Arrington
and William Hetrick-were arrested elsewhere.
Videotapes made moments before DeLorean's
arrest show him briefly examining 25 kilograms
of cocaine and saying, with a laugh, "It's better than gold."
He joins in a champagne toast, commenting,
"I think it's going to be wonderful
for everybody. To a lot of success for everybody."
Another tape, made at a hotel in Washington,
shows a conversation between DeLorean and
Hoffman, during which DeLorean says, "I'm
relying on you saying that there's no way
of connecting me to this thing." "You're
not going to be handling
says. "I'm going to be a long way away,"
DeLorean replies. Hoffman says DeLorean can
back out if he's not comfortable with the
deal. "I want to proceed," DeLorean
Arrington and Hetrick both pleaded
guilty in the case and received prison sentences-five
years for Arrington, ten for Hetrick. DeLorean
pleaded not guilty. His trial began in Los
Angeles on Apr. 18, 1984. During 12 weeks
of testimony, prosecutors relied heavily
on the videotapes. Hoffman, the prosecution's
star witness, was on the stand for 18 days,
testifying that DeLorean had suggested a
drug deal to save his failing company.
counter the accusations of the prosecution,
defense attorneys put the government on trial.
The defense-led by attorney Howard L. Weitzman-contended
that DeLorean had been conned by a lying
government informant and enticed by prospects
of big investments in his dying company.
Weitzman said government agents lied, destroyed
crucial notes, backdated documents and withheld
Weitzman's team said those
same agents-blinded by publicity and the
prospects of promotion-manufactured their
case against the defendant by choreographing
the videotapes, talking about narcotics,
choosing a smuggler and providing much of
the money for the scheme. Hoffman was branded
as an admitted felon, perjurer and con man
who had sold his services to the government
to escape prison and then lied on the witness
The defense attorneys admitted that
DeLorean had used poor judgment in his desperate
efforts to save his company, but they said
he committed no crime. And they said that
if the jury thought he had committed a crime,
he still should be acquitted because he had
been entrapped by conniving government agents
who used deceit and the power of the government
to ensnare him.
DeLorean never took the stand.
On Aug. 16, 1984, after 29 hours of deliberation,
the jury acquitted him on all counts. One
juror said entrapment was the key. "The way
government agents acted in this case was not
appropriate," the juror said. In magazine
interviews months later, other jurors called
Hoffman a "shabby creep" and said
he was "totally unbelievable" on
the stand. But some of the jurors felt that,
despite the unanimous verdict in his favor,
DeLorean was morally culpable.
Graves objected to DeLorean's claim that
the panel had found him innocent.
"I do not believe it was 'innocent,"'
Graves said. "It was 'not guilty."'
Two months later, Ferrare-who during the
trial had stood publicly by her man-filed
for divorce. She later fulfilled DeLorean's
prophesy and married another wealthy man-entertainment
executive Tony Thomopolous.
to the imposing, two-story Georgian mansion
on his estate in Somerset County, N.J., and
began a protracted and ultimately futile
battle to fend off creditors. On top of what
amounted to more than $4.7 million in unpaid
legal bills, he was unable to keep up payments
on the estate-the last of his real estate
holdings-eventually owing the mortgage holder,
Merrill Lynch Equity Management, Inc., more
than $9.7 million.
"I can't pay them," he told a reporter
in 1998. "I have nothing." But
if John DeLorean had nothing, he didn't live
that way. The estate-which included acres
of manicured lawn, a dozen handsome outbuildings,
a helicopter pad, several ponds and a stable
full of expensive cars-was splendidly maintained.
The mansion was furnished with antiques.
No one knew quite how he managed it, but
there were accusations-never proved-that
Delorean had siphoned off some of that money
provided by the British government. He denied
He even talked-in vague terms-about starting
another company to build "a radical new
car." But most of the time, he kept to
himself. "He was kind of quiet,"
said Sandy Stuart, a reporter at the Bernardsville
News, the local newspaper. "I saw him
once in a while at the stores around town,"
she said. "He wore Levi's, a denim shirt,
cowboy boots and one of those belts with
a big buckle. He looked like the Marlboro
Man, marching through the local supermarket."
Betty Merck, one of DeLorean's fox-hunting
neighbors, said that "one of the nice
things about him was that he'd go out, by
himself, and pick up trash along the road."
But she said that even though DeLorean was
one of her closest neighbors, she never got
to know him. "He didn't seem to have
any friends around here," Merck said.
Asked by a reporter in 1998 whether he missed
the limelight, DeLorean replied, "I'm
still well-known and well-regarded."
Strangers, he said "still pick up my
check at restaurants in New York."
charity may have been welcome after the fall
of 1999, when his mounting debts forced him
to declare bankruptcy. In January, 2000,
a federal judge approved sale of the Bedminster
estate to a golf course developer for $15.25
million. All of the money went to DeLorean's
creditors. A few weeks later, he watched
in silence as vans hauled away the furnishings,
most of which also were sold to satisfy outstanding
Also see: Honour Roll - Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry