DeLorean: how not to build a time machine

Created by a ‘con man’, immortalised by Hollywood, and built in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, John DeLorean’s DMC-12 was once the world’s most talked-about vehicle. We meet the men and women who built a fantasy car, then watched it crash spectacularly

 

‘He was a canny old devil,” Barrie Wills says, laughing, as he summons up a 35-year-old apparition of John Zachary DeLorean striding through his dream factory on the edge of smouldering, anxious Belfast.

This weekend some of the vast workforce once employed at the car plant will get together for dinner and drinks and to salute an unforgettable period in their lives. You felt different about DeLorean if you were part of it.

The brevity of the existence of the DeLorean Motor Company in Dunmurry, on the edge of the city, has contributed to the firm’s general infamy: a grandstanding opening chapter, two years of furious learning and production, sudden and escalating financial problems, and then the endgame, when DeLorean was caught in a multimillion-dollar cocaine deal in a Los Angeles hotel in October 1982.

A court later found that the meeting had been subject to an FBI sting, and DeLorean was acquitted of any wrongdoing. But his company was in irrevocable decline.

The 2,600 employees were let go in phases. The firm’s legacy is the 6,000 DMC-12 cars scattered around the world – and immortalised by the Back to the Future films, in which a scientist turns a DeLorean into a time machine. The DeLoreans are also inescapably of their time, with their stark, stainless-steel exteriors and daft but fabulous gull-wing doors.

Whether you regard the DeLorean experiment as a monumental folly – one that cost the British taxpayer £77 million in subsidies – or as a magnificent dream depends on perspective.

Joe Murray still has a DeLorean application form and his acceptance letter among the memorabilia at his home in Belfast. “I’m a fanatic,” Murray says cheerfully of the firm where he worked as a painter and decorator. His role held the rare advantage of allowing him full access to all parts of the factory, from the main floor to DeLorean’s office.

Every employee received a duffle coat, two pairs of overalls and two pairs of boots. On Friday nights Gerry McGrenry swapped the used overalls with folded replacements fresh from the Waveney Laundry in Ballymena.

“That was the kind of standard they set,” Murray says. “John DeLorean said to me once – quote me on this – ‘Give them the best tools and they will give you the best results.’ ”

‘He looked like a film star’

“When I first saw John I thought, Oh, sweet God,” says McClinton, who went on to work at UTV. “He looked like a film star. I could see why Cristina” – Ferrare, DeLorean’s third wife – “married him, because he was a very charming individual but was highly intelligent with it. Everybody was important to him.

“When I told him my situation he said, ‘That will never happen here.’ The man was astonished and said he would do everything he could to give as much employment as he could. He was a sharp cookie. He brought this strong attitude of ‘We get the work done.’ His manners were superb. In my opinion, if they had got the extra funding needed, that plant would still be there.”

That theme will come up again and again over the reunion at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast next weekend. Officially, the former employees are gathering to mark the 35th anniversary of the public unveiling, in New Orleans, of a DMC-12 “show car” built for DeLorean by Visioneering, a company that made prototypes for numerous car firms. But saluting that unveiling is also an excuse for getting together. “Sadly, when we began to look for former staff we found a lot of them had died,” says Murray.

In retrospect the closure of the plant has been deemed inevitable and the entire project a disastrous misuse of public funds.

The London obituaries after DeLorean died, in 2005, were nakedly hostile. “DeLorean was a world-class conman, despite a brilliant early engineering career at General Motors,” the Guardian wrote. “Among his victims of fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion or defaulted loans were the governments of Britain, the US and Switzerland (which also failed to extradite him), Hollywood stars such as talk-show host Johnny Carson,who lost $1.5m, lawyers, and a California automotive inventor forced to pay him almost $500,000 to buy back his own invention.”

Ivan Fallon, in the Independent, remembered DeLorean as the “man who fooled the world”. The most stinging line was in the Daily Telegraph: “Surface glamour was DeLorean’s forte. He was 6 ft 4 ins tall and had matinee idol looks (embellished, it is said, by a chin implant).”

Barrie Wills turned DeLorean down twice before agreeing over a long lunch to join the new venture as supplies director. DeLorean showed up for their appointment in London with his wife. “She was equally charismatic, and everybody was in love with her anyway,” Will says. “I’m still not sure if I went to work for Cristina or John. I did like John. But it is a love-hate relationship, because I blame him – not entirely, but I do – for the collapse of the business.

“There were three reasons for the collapse. But it didn’t help that even before I had started – and I was employee number 12 – John had siphoned off around £18 million of investors’ money.

“Then, it would never have started without John’s ambition. And he was the most remarkable man that I ever met in 50 years in the automotive industry. And I’ve met most of them. Nobody came near him. He was generous; he was charming.”

‘I was scared shitless’

Wills says that DeLorean was worried that he himself might be a target for paramilitaries because of the killing of Thomas Neidermeyer. The managing director of Belfast’s Grundig factory was kidnapped and shot by the IRA in 1973, but his body was discovered only in 1980, during the height of DeLorean omnipotence.

It was the bleakness of the social and political reality in Belfast that inspired the Labour government’s enthusiasm for the project. The desperation to show the city in a positive light, along with John DeLorean’s seductive persona, was one of the reasons why a deal was signed off so hastily.

Puerto Rico and the Republic of Ireland were considered as bases for the plant before an agreement was reached. Roy Mason, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told British cabinet colleagues in 1978 that the deal was of the “utmost political, social and psychological importance” and a potential “hammer blow to the IRA”.

The Industrial Development Authority studied the proposals for five months before saying no thanks. The Belfast deal was concluded in 45 days.

DeLorean was the pin-up of Detroit automotive production, with his physical grace, velvet tones and dazzling successes at Pontiac and in other parts of the American car world, and he proved irresistible to a group of politicians who wanted to be persuaded.

“What upset me is that the British press was never on our side,” Wills says. “They didn’t like the idea of this flash American coming over and taking a load of taxpayers’ money. One of the things they kicked us with was that we had separate entrances for the workforce. That was true, but it was misleading: the Catholic population lived on Twinbrook, and the Protestant population lived on Seymour Hill estate, on the other side of the railway line. So they came from different directions. Hence the two gates.

“But one of the saddest things to me is that the workforce could not have worked more closely or enthusiastically. People were talking and socialising and went on holiday together. What was a social experiment fell apart. I do believe that, had DeLorean succeeded, it would have given so much pride to the people of Northern Ireland that I would be so bold to suggest that it would have accelerated the peace process by years.”

Spare parts as art

City of BohaneDublin Review of Books

Lynch grew up in north Co Kerry, where his father ran a garage; this background has partly inspired his artistic explorations of the DeLorean story. He embarked on an investigation of what happened to the machinery of the DeLorean plant after the company was wound down. Lynch’s art, made from the panels and tools left over from the factory, has been shown across Europe. (The next DeLorean Progress Report opens at the Ronchini Gallery, in London, on May 22nd.)

“What I try to do is speed up the archaeological and historical process,” Lynch said this week from Italy. “There was a wonderful article in the Detroit Free Press in 1984 – and The Irish Times also reported it – that the body presses had been taken to scrapyards around Ireland, and most of it was imported to British Steel, in Sheffield and Kent, to be melted down and become, I don’t know, part of Canary Wharf or somewhere else a year later. But some of the pieces were bought by fishermen in Cork, and they were sunk into Galway Bay as anchors on a salmon farm. So that was the kernel of the project.

“I took a very specific interest in the process of something winding down or disappearing, or one form turning into another form . . . that what began as something that shaped a sports car ended up holding fish in the bottom of the sea. In our society there is a lot of attention given to how things build up. So the DeLorean story of someone getting foreign investment, building a factory from scratch, building a sports car . . . those agendas are very clear, whereas the process of how things fall away and dissipate is sometimes not so very pronounced.”

A luxury nobody cared about

The second shift made him nervous. Overtime and Sunday work stopped. Joe Murray remembers seeing new forklifts being taken away on the back of a truck one afternoon; he couldn’t understand why they needed repair. “They were being taken back because we couldn’t pay the rent on them.”

Don Lander, DeLorean Motor Company’s managing director at the time, sent Wills to California to meet Dick Brown, the sales and marketing director, at the end of November 1981. “We went through the order book and met dealers, and just three weeks before that winter freeze I reported that things couldn’t look better. So did McKinsey consultants, who were monitoring us for the British government.”

Then falling temperatures plunged the United States into a hazardous winter. Coincidentally, the US economy froze. Everything stopped. The DMC-12 suddenly became a luxury nobody cared about. Money dried up.

By then Margaret Thatcher had succeeded Jim Callaghan as prime minister, and her Tory government was reluctant to plough more money into the project. Thatcher and DeLorean never met, but she would have been immune to his charm offensive. It became clear that she loathed the very idea of the American. So there was no more money.

The night before John DeLorean’s arrest

“The night before John’s arrest I was told to call the workforce together and tell them that it was all over,” Wills says. “I was never given a reason why. The following morning the word was on the radio. It was difficult. Some of the shop stewards were close friends and allies. Seán McNeill, the second senior steward, just said, ‘Is it true?’ They were graceful and saddened and very businesslike and courteous.”

In the months that followed, the former employees found other work, and they occasionally bumped into one another in the years afterwards. John DeLorean failed to shake off the stigma of failure, diving into further ventures and accumulating debt. But, three decades on, neither his car nor his name has been forgotten. For all its shortcomings the DMC-12 remains a prized vehicle among car lovers, and its flaws are outweighed by the enduring boldness of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design. “I am very fond of the design,” says Sean Lynch. One of the urban myths is that it couldn’t be parked in a multistorey car park. It became associated with being a real loser car. But none of that is true: you could park it; you could open the doors.”

The former DeLorean employees remain proud of the cars they produced. As Joe Murray says, “It was stunning. It was like a fantasy car. Yes, it didn’t have the best of power, and steering was heavy. The catalytic convertor was not perfected. But this was DeLorean Mk I. They never got an opportunity to improve the car like other companies did. They got one shot at it.”

A lightning romance with Belfast

And they still can’t quite get over the car. They still feel it is theirs. A few years ago June McClinton was driving on a highway near Rochester in New York state when she spotted a DeLorean two lanes over. It was a jaw-dropping sight among the parade of tank-like SUVS, banal family cars and even prestige brands. Everyone was looking at the DeLorean, pointing and smiling.

Without knowing why, she followed the car and kept pace. It wasn’t difficult; the car was never a speedster. Finally, the owner pulled in for petrol. McClinton pulled in behind him. “By the way,” she said, “did you know that car was made in Belfast?”

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