Two weeks before his death in March of 2005, I had a conversation with John DeLorean, the storied car creator, General Motors executive, creator of the GTO and the infamous DMC-12 gull-wing sports car that starred famously in "Back To The Future."
The reason for the conversation? At the time I was talking with an inventor named Tom Kasmer who was requesting an interview on my national radio show, America’s Car Show. Tom had developed a new hydraulic powertrain called the "Hydristor."
He claimed something big: that John DeLorean was going to use the Hydristor as the powertrain in his new car that was slated to roll out from his resurrected corporation, a sort of second coming of the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) that went down in a blaze of glory in the early to mid 1980s. I told Kasmer that if he could have John DeLorean call me and confirm that this was true, then I would have him on the radio show. I had received other similar calls in the past, so I forgot about this one as soon as I hung up the phone.
The next afternoon I received a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The voice on the other end introduced himself as John DeLorean and asked to speak with me. I was surprised, to say the least. For about 20 minutes we talked on a few fronts (while a friend of mine sat next to me in my office with his mouth agape and pie-eyed), discussing everything from his days at GM to the plans for his next car using the Hydristor. Before we ended the conversation we scheduled a live on-air interview for three weeks later in early April.
The interview would never take place: two weeks later, he died.
The day of our conversation, I had put together the interview questions saved it filed under the title: “The 'Would-Be' Interview With John DeLorean.” Below are the questions I was going to ask John and the answers are a combination of what he told me in our 20 minute phone call and my best guess at what I thought John might have said based on our conversation.
What you read below didn't actually take place, but for those of you who want an insight into one of the greatest automotive minds of all time, it should be interesting reading:
TT: John, regarding the creation of the GTO - the story goes that one Friday you were sitting in the design studio at GM and wanted to drive something exciting that weekend but could not find anything compelling. So you found the smallest car in the stable, stuck the biggest engine you had in it, and drove off into history with the creation of the GTO. Is that about how it happened?
JZD: Well Tom, history and the facts always do differ. So here’s how it really happened. Yes, it was a Friday afternoon and I was trying to decide what to drive that weekend. As I looked around the design studio, I realized that there was nothing in the lineup that I wanted to drive. I wanted something sporty and powerful so I looked at the Tempest, which was the smallest car we had in the lineup. Then impulse took over and I had my team find the largest engine we had in inventory at the time (389 CID that was used for the Catalina and Bonneville) and install it in the Tempest. I drove the car for the weekend and LOVED IT! So I decided to loan it to other GM execs. This was a dangerous move for my career at the time because GM had issued a ban on factory-sponsored racing. To get them to drive it, I said that the car was designed for street-racing, not professional racing. They took the bait and test-drove the car with that understanding. I knew I had something when I had a hard time getting the car back from them, and hence the GTO was born.
TT: Fascinating story. The GTO led you to Pontiac division President in 1965 at 40 years old, the youngest GM exec to do so. You built Pontiac to a strong position and then took over Chevrolet when Chevrolet was having trouble. You reorganized that division and made it profitable too. As a result, GM promoted you to VP of national car and truck division, in effect a stepping-stone to the GM presidency. But you left GM shortly after that. Why did you leave GM before reaching the pinnacle of power?
JZD: Too much bureaucracy and red tape at that level. It’s hard to overcome traditional values and ways of doing business. I figured I’d open my own car company where I had full reign.
TT: Hence the creation of the DeLorean Motor Company?
TT: History records that DMC had a short run and closed due to economic, legal, and quality control issues. Is this true?
JZD: Yes and no.
TT: I understand that you are in the process of re-launching the company. Will the car you’re selling be built on the same platform as the DMC car of old?
JZD: It will be a modern car but some of what we designed into the plans for the original DMC will be noticeable. The car will have a dramatic exterior and the choice of powerplants. One will be a version of a Renault engine and as an option, some vehicles will come equipped with the Thomas Kasmer Hydristor hydraulic hybrid system.
TT: Really? The Hydristor? And what about the signature gull wing doors?
JZD: Yes, the Hydristor has wonderful potential as a hybrid powertrain and would be a perfect fit in our new cars. I have looked at it both from an engineering and marketing standpoint, and am very excited about the potential this system has to offer our DMC vehicles. We are working with the legendary Burt Rutan (aerospace engineer and winner of the X-Prize for his SpaceShipOne), using carbon fiber and fiberglass panels to lighten the car. We'll have a high performance suspension and steering system, a high performance Renault powerplant, and yes, gull wing doors.
TT: When can we expect to see the new DMC cars roll off the assembly line?
JZD: Sometime in 2006. We've got everything we need.
TT: Thanks John.
JZD: You’re welcome, Tom.
Sadly, he never got the chance to re-launch his company.
History shows that John DeLorean and his fabled DMC company suffered great pains and ultimate demise due to a down economy, a lack of sales and quality control issues in the first batch of DMC cars that ultimately left a bad mark on the remaining cars that went out to dealerships. Once the company was already in a tailspin, John himself was mixed up in a few creative last-ditch efforts to save the company. One of these, involving his arrest after he was videotaped in a hotel room with a suitcase filled with cocaine, was later thrown out as he was found not guilty due to FBI entrapment. In the wake of the press from this incident, however, most people incorrectly recall the cocaine issue as the straw that broke DMC's back. In reality the company had already gone into receivership and was set for shut down.
Desperate times often bring forth desperate actions and such was the case with John DeLorean. He had the passion and drive to do what no other executive (and certainly no GM executive) had ever done: obtain some $200 million in financing from governments, celebrities and men on the street to fund his dream of creating an ethical sports car. In the end, the same passion and drive blinded him to some of the problems facing his company and his dream project came to an abrupt end.
Indeed, it was a sour ending to what could have been one of the greatest stories in the automotive business. I prefer to remember John as a great man despite his shortcomings, remembering him as the automotive genius who created the GTO, a man who held several automotive patents, was a true marketing wizard, a master salesman, and a leader in the automotive world. Men of this caliber are what legends are made of. I feel fortunate to have spoken with him before he died.