Shifty Engineering

“Would you buy a used car from me?” John DeLorean once asked reporters. Maybe not — but who can resist the spate of documentaries about this errant son of Detroit?
John DeLorean with His Automobile
All Aboard – During a midlife crisis in the early 1970s, John DeLorean stormed off from General Motors, where he was a $650,000-per-year vice president, and underwent a makeover that included facial surgery to augment his weak chin. After the operation, he was set for 1980s narcissism. // Courtesy of Getty Images

The hidden camera captures a man lifting a heavy suitcase onto a coffee table, then releasing the latches. It’s Oct. 19, 1982, and the action is taking place inside a Sheraton Hotel suite in Los Angeles. John DeLorean — exalted leader of DeLorean Motor Car Co. — sits on the sofa, giddy as he beholds the cocaine. “Better than gold!” he says. “Gold weighs more than this, for God’s sake.”

The suitcase represents just the tip of the coke-berg. DeLorean had arranged for the delivery of 220 pounds, in an effort to earn $60 million and save his company. Moments later, he’s handcuffed.

Authorities had set up the Detroit native in a series of meetings over the previous 45 days. Their efforts sealed DMC’s doom, destroyed DeLorean’s reputation, and resulted in a not-guilty verdict after a sensational trial. The claim of government entrapment stuck; the defendant was free. “Eternal vigilance is the price of dishonesty,” he once wrote.

The sting is featured in “Framing John DeLorean,” the 2019 movie — part documentary, part re-enactment — that stars Alec Baldwin. Appearing on camera, DeLorean’s adopted son, Zach, summarizes the story: “It’s got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents, and hard-core drug dealers.”

The sports car in question, the DeLorean DMC-12, was featured in the 1985 film “Back to the Future,” guaranteeing immortality for the approximately 4,000 stainless-steel coupes that were produced, as well as an oddly heroic status for their namesake.

The story “still feels tailor-made for movies,” according to the reviewer of another 2019 title, “Driven.” In this “relatively amusing dramedy,” actor Lee Pace balances DeLorean’s “gentlemanly understatement with an icon’s overconfidence.” Last year, Netflix presented “Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean,” a three-part documentary. The Wall Street Journal says DeLorean “is portrayed as both a swashbuckling hero and a scurvy pirate; a visionary innovator and an unscrupulous huckster.” 

Through these films, along with Hillel Levin’s stellar 1983 exposé “Grand Delusions: The Cosmic Career of John DeLorean,” we encounter a subject who absorbed elements of 1960s counterculture and, in the following decade, added veneers of social conscience and self-actualization.

Born in 1925, DeLorean grew up at 17199 Marx St., in a neighborhood near I-75 and E. McNichols Road. The engineering profession was a natural draw. Enrolling at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield in 1941 (at the time, it was located in Highland Park), he played clarinet in a band, wrote columns for the Tech News, and thumbed through textbooks 30 minutes before scoring perfect exam marks.

Yet he operated on the shady side, selling counterfeit ad space in “Yellow Pages” that didn’t belong to Michigan Bell. Lucky to have the opportunity to make things right, he eventually worked in engineering for Packard Motor Car Co. in Detroit.

DeLorean’s fabled time at GM started in 1956, when Pontiac general manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen created an advanced engineering division and named the 31-year-old prodigy as its head. DeLorean presided over the launch of the Pontiac GTO, then ran the Chevrolet Division. But his maverick stances and playboy style led to disenrollment from GM in 1973 and initiated his singular journey.

We recall DeLorean’s accomplishments, but also the duplicity — as in boasts about building an “ethical car.” Ethical? He had played false with J. Patrick Wright, author of an as-told-to autobiography, “On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors,” and dirty with Levin during that writer’s preparation of “Grand Delusions.”

DeLorean was always a sneak and today, instead of thinking of him as a fallen god, the comparison to a modern day huckster seems more apt.