The rise and fall of the DeLorean Motor Company has been well-documented over the years. Almost everyone of a certain age knows it to varying degrees of truth, and will tell you of the stainless steel gull-winged Back to the Future car that made a big splash but died a painful death well before it was in any of the movies that made it truly famous. But what everyone doesn’t know is the far-out plan that almost saved the day for DeLorean, right before the now-legendary, company-killing drug arrest of its founder.
John Z. DeLorean, the ambitious former General Motors executive, started his own company in 1975 and eventually created one of the most iconic (and also terrible to drive) cars ever made. His life story is a large one – a child of European immigrant parents who grew up poor in Detroit, he studied hard and became a gifted engineer who is credited with the creation of the Pontiac GTO, among many other things.
His career seemed blessed when he became General Motors’ youngest-ever division head, taking the helm of Pontiac at just 40. He later took over Chevrolet and seemed poised to become president of GM, but in the early 1970s he and the automaker giant parted ways so he could start his own car company.
But by 1982, the company was in receivership and barely clinging to life, and so John Z. was searching for investors from all over the globe to keep the wolf from the gull-wing door. Those people never seemed to come through.
While JZD was busy trying to keep himself afloat, however, a small group of DeLorean faithful, referred to as the UK Consortium, were trying to do the same thing.
Barrie Wills, chief executive of DeLorean during receivership, Charles “Chuck” Bennington, formerly first managing director and chief executive DeLorean Motor Cars Limited, and L.E. “Bill” Bellamy, chairman of CP Trim Limited (a joint venture with DeLorean Motor Cars Limited and suppliers of seats and interior soft trim) worked out a plan to buy the company and get it back on track. Working with receivers, Sir Kenneth Cork and Paul Shewell, and Margaret Thatcher’s man in Northern Ireland, James Prior, Wills and Co. figured out a business plan that could make DeLorean work in the long term.
Wills’ 2015 book John Z, the Delorean & Me: Tales from an Insider documents the whole deal, and he’s allowed us to use excerpts from the book to tell the story here. I also interviewed him to fill in some gaps.
Barrie, now 76 and in his own words “sort-of retired,” said that at the time, meetings were held in secret, companies formed quietly, and a business plan was devised to make DeLorean work in the real world. Potentially useful parties from within the business were tasked with keeping the secret and working out the finer points.
As is often the way with top secret things, the plan leaked. Luckily it grabbed the attention of Cork, the chap in charge of DeLorean’s receivership. Wills and his backers were summoned to a motorway service station to explain themselves.
“Sir Kenneth beckoned us to sit around the small table,” Wills wrote. “He opened the proceedings by telling me, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘You had better let me know all that you have been up to as they have told me you are getting something together. You have got the Northern Ireland Office quite excited and there is serious interest in what you’re doing.”
At this point it’s critical to understand how important DeLorean’s Northern Ireland car plant was to the region. When it was built jobs were scarce at the best of times, and the best of times were rare. The fact there was a factory building cars hand over fist was a huge deal, as not only did it get people in to work in the first place but it also provided work for surrounding businesses. The prospect of losing it was not a good one for Dunmurry.
Wills may have been concerned for his job – he had been using company time to figure out how to buy the company, after all – but his job was safe.
“Cork was thoughtful throughout and asked the minimum of questions,” he wrote. “After a pause he announced ours was the first sensible plan he had seen for saving the company in Dunmurry and would give it his full support for a reasonable period. He also said he would delay the full closure of the plant while our efforts progressed.”
The company was to be called the Dunmurry Motor Company. This was for two reasons. One, because the DeLorean factory was based in Dunmurry, and two, it meant they could keep the stylish DMC logo. Cost saving at its best — why pay for a marketing team to do an expensive rebrand?
DeLorean and his car in 1977.Photo: AP
Wills explained how it went down: “We were becoming increasingly concerned about the bad vibes surrounding the DeLorean name and its future use as a brand. The logo DMC, which had been designed by the American graphic artist Phil Gibbon in 1974, was so distinctive we wished to retain it. We believed we should change the company name to Dunmurry Motor Company — shades of Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) — whilst dropping the word DeLorean from the vocabulary.”
So what of DeLorean, the man? If it wasn’t DeLorean’s company any more his name wasn’t going to be on the door, was the idea. The UK team wasn’t keen on his involvement.
Wills clarified the consortium’s views on him: “John’s name had become toxic in the City of London, from where we were seeking funds. Anyway, we were disillusioned with his management style and his inability to realise he was heading up a small specialist car manufacturer, about the same size as one of my former employers Reliant Motor Company — not a multi-national corporation. We were, however, prepared to offer him a titular role as head of the independent U.S. import organisation, providing it was run by Dunmurry’s second MD and former president of Chrysler Europe, Don Lander.”
And remember, DeLorean’s greatest trials were still yet to come.
The original DeLorean DMC-12 was supposed to poke John Z. DeLorean’s former bosses at GM right in the eye. It was, in its earliest incarnation, going to be cheap to buy, fun to drive, economical, and easy to fix.
Over its development a few of those factors fell away, and the early cars were famously terrible — stuck doors, alternators failing, poor finish, and so on. But had it been allowed to continue and develop it could have been a cracking car.
The new DMC would have let that happen. And in fact, they weren’t going to just update the product. They were going to bring more cars in.
Image: Barrie Wills
The team worked out a deal with Donald Healey to licence the Healey name for the new DMC’s products, and a deal with British Leyland to take over production of a face-lifted Triumph TR7 and TR8, re-badged to be the DMC Healey 2000/3500.
With those, and a new turbocharged version of the original DMC-12, they’d theoretically have a three-strong line up of sports cars for the masses.
Barrie continued: “The Healey brand, with its sports car heritage, struck Chuck and me as ideal. The Healey Gullwing (DMC-12), and the Healey 2000 and 3500 (the TR7/8 based cars) fitted the envisaged new DMC image perfectly.”
The Healey 2000 was for European shores, while the V8-powered Healey 3500 would have found a home in America. At least, that was the plan.
One more car was planned: the much-rumoured Giugiaro-designed DMC-24 sedan as well. A gull-winged four seater. It would have looked like this:
Image: Giugiaro Design
Quite the looker, huh? (You can also read about some of John Z.’s earlier sedan ambitions here; it was something the company had wanted to do for a while.)
The group planned to keep its numbers low. Where John DeLorean wanted to churn out cars as quickly as possible, the new DMC would have kept production to, after consultation with investors, 3,500 DMC 12s and 7,500 TR7/8s globally. With only 11,000 cars produced a year, it would have remained a relatively boutique car manufacturer.
There was a problem, though. DeLorean, the man, could still throw a spanner in the works.
“John’s last credible potential investor was Peter Kalikow, a wealthy Manhattan property developer, who had tried to launch his own car, the Momo Mirage in the early ’70s,” Wills clarified. “It was when he pulled out in late May 1982 that Charles Bennington and I decided to pick up the deal we had with British Leyland to take over production of the Triumph TR8 and spin it into a business plan alongside the DMC-12 to “save” Dunmurry.”
He added, “Once Sir Kenneth Cork saw our plan he gave us a free run and told John, if we failed to come up with the finance, only then he would fulfil an agreement he’d made with him in June to allow him a second attempt.”
Luckily, the team didn’t have to worry too much and sent a shopping list of requests for John Z. DeLorean to peruse.
Wills wrote that he remembers it thus: “Cork took our document to New York and met with John Z., as planned, on the 9th [of August 1982]. On the following day, we met with Paul Shewell at the Cork Gully office. He [Cork] had returned overnight with our paper in his hand. All of our points had a tick against them in John Z’s own fair hand.”
All John Z. DeLorean wanted to was to be considered as the U.S. distributor and importer. Not a bad deal.
Investments were sought, budgets planned, and everything was in place to go. All that remained was for the UK government to approve one final thing: Cork and Prior wanted the UK government’s branch in Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland Office) to guarantee the fee for merchant bank Hill Samuel, the moneymen who’d make the second round of DeLorean possible.
But it didn’t.
Wills recalls: “That morning, we were told by Hill Samuel that while James Prior remained very much in favour of our plan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not. Later that day we heard from Cork that he thought Prior had botched his presentation to Thatcher in that he confused her by giving the impression the ‘UK Consortium’ had no funds at all.”
That wasn’t the case at all. The cash was there and all Thatcher needed to do was give the nod to the receivers plan to pay the bank and everything was a go.
However, Wills writes, that wasn’t what Thatcher heard: “As a result Thatcher thought we were asking the Government to put more money into DeLorean. We heard that she concluded the ‘discussion’ by saying to Prior, in no uncertain terms: ‘Tell the receivers to do their job… there will be no more money!'”
Thatcher was not a fan of Prior, Wills says in his book: “We all knew Prior was considered by Thatcher to be a ‘wet’ — one of her cabinet who was ‘soft’ on industry and liable to ‘intervene’ when things went wrong.” And that clearly put him at odds with the conservative, anti-nationalization agenda of Thatcher.
Were the cards stacked against Prior from the off or did he muck up his presentation that badly? Whatever actually happened in there, the UK Consortium’s game seemed over.
From 161km/h to 0 in a moment, the team was told to put its plans on ice, while DeLorean himself was given another shot at gathering funds. However his investors apparently weren’t all they seemed to be, as Wills explains: “Once Thatcher had thrown us out with the bath water on 12 August, from then on John’s ‘investors’ were unnamed Arabs, [controversial British businessman] Tiny Rowland — who denied it — and other somewhat flaky named and unnamed individuals.” Lots of tails were between lots of legs.
However slim, though, there was still a second shot at redemption if John Z. DeLorean failed to get his cash in order. They’d have a company of their own making a car they loved at a lower, sustainable volume, alongside two others that would serve all corners of the globe. The worst case was that DeLorean would get his company back and they’d all carry on as normal. OK, not the very worst case, but it was feasible.
Wills added: “We gave up when Cork thought John’s unnamed investor [the FBI, as part of the sting operation drug arrest] were coming good in the run up to 19 October 1982.”
On October 19th 1982, Barrie Wills was called by receiver Paul Shewell and told to gather his staff the next morning and tell them DeLorean was done. There would be no second run for the UK Consortium, and no round two for John Z. DeLorean.
On the morning on October 20, 1982 the UK woke to the news that DeLorean had been arrested on charges of drug trafficking in the United States following an FBI sting operation. Desperate to keep his troubled car company afloat, prosecutors alleged, DeLorean offered to be a financier in a scheme to sell $US24 ($31) million worth of cocaine.
And with that, the company, and any hope of revival, was truly dead. One has to imagine that if the UK government and bankers didn’t want anything to do with DeLorean’s operation before his drug arrest, they certainly wouldn’t now.
DeLorean was later acquitted of those charges at a 1984 trial where he argued he had been entrapped, but his reputation had been irrevocably damaged. He died in 2005. (Another fun fact: his farm in Bedminster, New Jersey was bought by Donald Trump in 2002 and turned into the Trump National Golf Club.)
DeLorean at his trial in 1984.Photo: AP
Say what you will about DeLorean, both the man and the car company, but the Dunmurry Motor Company could well have still been around today thanks to the three chaps behind it had the circumstances been different. Hell, a modern interpretation of the Gullwing would be pretty sick today. Just not one designed by Will.i.iam.
And if you’re not au fait with the DeLorean story, here it is told by the people who were there at the time.