I believe in the personality cult of the auto industry. If you have a dynamic leader, one who fires on all cylinders, so to speak, you can make automotive history. John Z. DeLorean was one of these human dynamos.

By Wallace Wyss

In 1973, I followed the fortunes of John DeLorean as the leader of the Pontiac division of General Motors. He had pushed it to record sales, and when he left GM, I was disappointed. I continued to run into his right-hand man, Jim Wangers, at the McManus, John and Adams ad agency, and it reminded me of my disappointment over and over again. Wangers was a dyed in the wool hot rodder that modified Pontiacs to show GM what could be built.

Some of the cars I remember DeLorean promoting as the head of Pontiac were:

Success Seemed to Follow Anything He Did

I worked in Detroit at the GM Building from 1966 to 1970, and let’s face it; most of the executives there were pudgy, out of shape, “nebbishes.” DeLorean, on the other hand, was 6-feet 4-inches tall, in good physical condition, wore dashing sideburns and fitted suits, drove a Maserati Ghibli (also reported to have owned a Lambo), and hung out in Hollywood with movie stars.

He married Hollywood celebrity Kelly Harmon, the daughter of a famous professional football athlete, and later divorced her to marry model and TV personality, Cristina Ferrare.


DeLorean certainly did not fit the mold of a typical GM executive. However, he increased sales so dramatically at the Pontiac Division that management thought, let’s move him over to GM’s Chevrolet Division. I’m sure he had a lot to do with the Camaro Z/28, a competitor to the Trans Am (but much more race worthy).

By 1973, he had moved up to become GM’s vice president and group executive for North American cars and trucks—planning the destiny of Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC, and Canadian car and truck operations. DeLorean was responsible for $25 billion in consolidated GM sales.

Looking Too Cool Made Things Go Wrong

Ironically, it was not his work that put him out of sorts with management, it was that he projected so youthful an image and dressed in such a personal style that he made all the other executives look bad. And, he was always trying to get attention.

When the Queen of England visited Detroit, DeLorean had a Chevy convertible assembled with gold plated parts and delivered to her upon her arrival by yacht. He was shocked when she turned it down. What—someone didn’t see the PR potential?

He was a wheeler-dealer when it came to business, but some of his sins didn’t come out until years later. I remember when I worked at Motor Trend and met the man that invented the coolant recovery system. He said he sold the system to DeLorean to use in one GM division only. Instead, GM ended up using it on every car they built. The man sued GM and won. His first installment check on the settlement award was $15 million.

He Certainly Was in the Right Place at the Right Time

DeLorean did not receive his education from top schools like Harvard or Yale, no, he did it the hard way. He attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, and later Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, Michigan, where he majored in Engineering. He started his career at Chrysler after earning a post-graduate degree in engineering at the Chrysler Institute in 1952.

After Chrysler, he spent time at the Packard Motor Car Company working to eliminate slippage on the automatic transmission. When Packard and Studebaker combined, DeLorean decided to go to Pontiac, where he worked for a neighbor of mine, Pete Estes. Working with two gear-heads, Estes and Bunkie Knudsen, the trio came up with a wide track design and the Bonneville, a sort of large hot rod, was born.

DeLorean was in the right place at the right time for the muscle car wars. By stuffing a big 389-cubic inch engine into a mid-size car (against Company policy but he got away with it when they saw the sales figures), he created the Pontiac GTO.

In 1973-74, the Arab Oil Embargo caused gas lines so long that all the high-performance models came to a screeching halt. DeLorean then left Pontiac to build a car under his own name. He made a two-seater gull-winged coupe designed by one of the world’s great designers, Giorgetto Giugiaro.

The car was the DeLorean DMC-12—there were even limited edition gold plated DMC-12 models. However, the sales volume that was projected never materialized, and the DeLorean Motor Company struggled to stay alive. In 1982, facing labor troubles and near bankruptcy, DeLorean became so desperate to raise money to refinance his company that he got caught in a sting operated by the FBI. Charged with trafficking cocaine, what he thought might save his company ended up costing him several million dollars to fight the charges. While he eventually won, and the charges were dropped, he lost most of his net worth, and his career in the auto industry was over.

His dream car never made it.

It is popular today because it was cast in the 1985 Hollywood comedy sci-fi flick Back to the Future

Maybe he was just a little ahead of his time.

Thank you to author Wallace Wyss for allowing us to reprint Mr. Cool Guy, John Z. DeLorean, a story that originally appeared in My Car Quest.

Do you have any stories about Ferraris or other classic cars from the 1980s or any other time? Please share the story here, or leave a comment below.

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