John DeLorean: A visionary or a charlatan?

Creator of ‘Back to the Future’ car and his Belfast factory were sources of controversy

 

In August 1978, the American automobile executive John Z DeLorean, a former General Motors (GM) vice-president, announced that he was setting up a factory to build his own, revolutionary, DeLorean Motor Car – the DMC-12 – in, of all places, Northern Ireland, where the Troubles were just entering their 10th year.

I grew up on a housing estate in Finaghy, south Belfast, about two miles from the chosen factory site at Derriaghy.

I don’t remember paying it very much attention at the time. I was still at school. Cars and their design features were the preserve of the boys (always boys – that was part of the problem) who played Top Trumps at break time. I don’t remember either paying very much attention or being very much surprised when, four years later, the factory closed, with fewer than 9,000 cars having been built in the interim and with DeLorean owing the Conservative British government in the region of £100 million. It was what things did in Belfast in those days: failed. Sure, those failures did not usually entail, as this one did, drugs busts in LA hotels or allegations of misappropriation of funds by Formula 1 team owners, but those were asides. So far as I was concerned (and, as I say, it wasn’t much) the DeLorean episode was an all-too-predictable Belfast disaster.

I was aware that interest in the car did not die with the factory, that the DMC-12 retained a purchase on the public imagination – global imagination, even – thanks in large part to Back to The Future, which, Belfast not being over-endowed with cinemas in those high-explosive days, I didn’t see until some time in the 1990s, a decade after its release. Local lottery winners bought DeLoreans, but – again thanks to BTTF – in the eyes of the rest of the world the car had largely been translated back across the Atlantic.

Four years ago, Clare Delargy, a director friend I had been working with on an idea for a radio play that had fallen through, mentioned DeLorean as a possible subject. The factory, Clare said, was still there, complete with overgrown test track. As we talked I began to understand that there were three DeLorean stories – DeLorean the man, DeLorean the car, DeLorean the factory – and that the only place where they all overlapped was Belfast.

Even so, with only 45 minutes’ radio to work with I decided to focus on the third of these, the factory.

Blackest of black spots

That, of course, for the British government, had been part of the attraction, part of what persuaded it to brush aside the misgivings that had seen the Irish government walk away from a possible deal to bring the factory to Limerick, to gazump in promised subsidies Puerto Rico, which had also been in the frame.

Actually, forget the frame: Puerto Rico thought it was the whole picture. Even as the Northern Ireland deal was being announced, Puerto Rican representatives were sitting in a New York hotel waiting, as they believed, for contracts to be exchanged.

As for what motivated DeLorean to move production out of the US in the first place, critics – and from the start there were many – looked no further than those government subsidies. DeLorean, though, claimed he was forced out by the “Big Three” automotive manufacturers, GM, Ford and Chrysler, whose ruthlessness in the face of competition was attested to by the fate of Preston Tucker, inventor of the “Torpedo” or “Tucker 48”, of which precisely 51 were made before his company – as revolutionary in its day as DeLorean aimed to be – collapsed in scandal.

Roy Mason, secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 1978, was in no doubt about the value of the factory to Belfast. He told Labour prime minister James Callaghan that it could save soldiers’ lives, because if you gave people jobs – 2,000 of them – you gave them hope, and if you gave them hope then maybe, just maybe, you gave them less cause to lend their support, however tacit, to the IRA.

There was, of course, no guarantee that the IRA would simply bow to this logic. A few years earlier the Provisionals kidnapped and murdered Thomas Niedermayer, manager of the German Grundig factory, situated only a short distance from the proposed DeLorean plant.

To encourage cross-community recruitment two gates were built, the “Protestant” one at the Seymour Hill end of Derriaghy, and the “Catholic” one at the other end, facing Twinbrook, technically, like Seymour Hill, the borough of Lisburn, but, approached from another direction the westernmost part of the not-entirely-geographical entity of West Belfast.

Pay and conditions, informed by those in US factories rather than local standards, were vastly better than anything on offer elsewhere in Belfast. “A piece of cake in a dream,” was how one veteran of the linen mills described her time on the production line, consciously or unconsciously invoking the DMC-12 ad campaign, which invited American motorists (and almost all the cars produced were for the American market) to “live the dream”.

Heavier chassis

The added weight required other modifications to be made, other loans to be solicited from the British Exchequer, controlled, since May 1979, by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. The first car did not come off the production line until January 1981 – came off the production line and drove straight into a wall: brake problems.

In April of that year – the only full calendar year of production as it was to turn out – republican prisoners in the Maze Prison, aka Long Kesh, began a hunger strike led by Bobby Sands, who at the time of arrest (for bombing a furniture showroom) had been living in Twinbrook.

Despite the management’s best efforts to maintain a non-sectarian, non-partisan shop floor, half of the DeLorean workforce staged an impromptu walkout in response. As the hunger strikes escalated and the walkouts became more frequent, workers devised a banner, a DeLorean car smashing through a giant capital H for H-Blocks. Others expressed their support in less obvious ways. Every second car, according to one worker we interviewed, carried a message scratched into the stainless steel behind the dashboard: “Up the ’Ra”, or a candle entwined in barbed wire – the “hunger strike candle” – over which more care was sometimes taken than the (literal) nuts and bolts of assembly. “It was the times,” he said. “You weren’t a gunman, you weren’t a rioter, you were a worker. You had to do something.”

(Talking of times, I defy you, knowing now what lies behind, to look at that famous Back to the Future dashboard clock the same way.)

In the citywide riots that followed Sands’s death at the start of May a portable cabin in the factory grounds was gutted by a petrol bomb, an incident that prompted a compensation claim by DeLorean running into the millions and provoked yet more ire, and scrutiny, from an increasingly impatient Conservative administration in London. No sooner had the hunger strike ended in October than the first serious allegations of financial impropriety were levelled at DeLorean by the Conservative MP Nicholas Winterton, who claimed to be in possession of a leaked memo – the so-called “gold faucet memo” (well, it would have to leak, wouldn’t it?) – detailing excessive expenditure on Warren House, the relatively modest pile, not far from the factory, that DeLorean bought for himself and his third wife, Cristina Ferrare: bought and never stayed a night in.

Cristina was reported to have been deeply disturbed on her only visit – daytrip – to the city by the sight and sound of anti-H-Block protesters at the factory gates, some of them, in solidarity with the prisoners, dressed only in blankets. She hadn’t been too enamoured either of the bodyshop – the “sh*thouse” to those who endured its constant drizzle of fibreglass dust. “She took one look inside,” a worker told us, “and fled.”

The Winterton allegations were successfully rebutted (those taps? gold-coloured), but damage had undoubtedly been done. A mooted stock market flotation was put on hold. As 1981 drew to a close, DeLorean went back to the British government for yet another loan. It was refused. That winter the US suffered its worst snowfall in living memory. With little moving on the roads, car sales were badly hit. Gull-wing sports car sales dwindled to practically zero. DeLorean had no fallback: the factory only produced one model, and a left-hand drive one at that, although the right-hand drive was said to be imminent, as was a sedan, an off-road vehicle, a bus . . .

When the expected upturn in sales did not arrive in the spring, workers began to be laid off. The government appointed a receiver, Sir Kenneth Cork. Cork set a deadline of October 1982 for the finance to be raised to keep the factory from closing permanently, adding as an absolute condition that DeLorean – who by that stage owned, in addition to the modest pile in Belfast, a ranch in California, an estate in Bedminster, New Jersey, and a seven-and-a-half bathroom Manhattan apartment – invest at least half of the money.

DeLorean lamented that he had ever chosen to bring the factory to Belfast, adding that for every pound the British government had put in he had put in the same in blood.

As the clock ticked down and the search for funds grew more desperate, DeLorean meantime had become entangled in one final scheme to rescue the factory, entering into a consortium that included a former neighbour at his California ranch, James Hoffman. It is a matter of conjecture how soon DeLorean knew that Hoffman was a major-league drug smuggler. What he clearly did not know, until it was too late, was that Hoffman was also an FBI informer, who had bragged to his handlers that he could bring them John DeLorean.

On the very day that Cork’s deadline expired DeLorean flew from New York to LA to meet Hoffman and others of the consortium in Suite 501 of the Sheraton Hotel.

Packed with cocaine

White Lines

Workers occupying the canteen said that the moment they heard the news they knew the game was up, the dream over. They left the same day. “How could we even stay there after that?” one of them asked. Said another, “It was back to normal after that. Back to Belfast.”

Despite the fact that DeLorean was eventually acquitted on grounds of entrapment (that boast of Hoffman’s did not play well with the jury) most workers we spoke to said they would not have put it past him to have got involved in a drug-smuggling plot, but added in his defence that he would have “done anything” to save the factory. Instead they laid the blame for the factory’s demise squarely at Thatcher’s door: at the same time as the tap was being turned off on DeLorean her government was putting money into another US-owned factory on the outskirts of Belfast, Lear Fan (one not inherited from its Labour predecessor), which was to supply parts for an eight-seat executive jet. When it closed a year after the DeLorean factory not a single commercially viable jet had been produced.

Nine thousand gull-wing sports cars looks, in comparison, a veritable bonanza.

Certainly by the time I had finished working on the radio play, that’s how it looked to me. By the time I finished the radio play, in fact, I realised I had barely scratched the surface of my interest in the story.

I wrote a novel, Gull, whose epigraph reads: “I made all this up, apart from the bits you just couldn’t.”

First job interviews

I wondered, I confess, a couple of times whether I put a little too much stress on the comedy of the situation.

Shortly after I had sent off the copy-edited manuscript I ran into a retired architect friend in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library. He asked me what I was working on. I told him about the book. He told me about a friend of his who had applied for a job at the factory. When he walked in the door to the interview the chair of the panel leaned forward and jabbed the tabletop with his left forefinger. “There’s Lenin,2 he said, then jabbed a point 12 inches to the right with his other forefinger. “There’s Hitler. Where are you?”

My friend’s friend placed his own forefinger halfway between the two. The other man sat back. “You’re hired,” he said.

Truly there was nothing I could have written that was so outrageous that anyone who actually worked there couldn’t top it.

DeLorean emerged from his near-prison experience in the US a born-again Christian. (He was baptised in the swimming pool of his Bedminster estate.) He continued to insist that, far from having been involved in a conspiracy, he and his car had been conspired against – just like Tucker and the Torpedo – in this instance not just by the Big Three, but by the FBI and elements within the Tory government. In September 2004, six months before he died, aged 80, he filed a federal trademark registration for the DeLorean Automobile Company “in the category of vehicles and products for locomotion by land, air or water”, using the name Ephesians 6:12 Inc.

Ephesians 6:12 reads: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Even after writing the novel and the radio play (and a screenplay) I cannot decide whether John DeLorean was a visionary or a charlatan. If he really did gull a lot of people, though, then he also succeeded in gulling himself right to the end.

Glenn Patterson’s latest novel, Gull, is published by Head of Zeus, price €22.50/£14.99

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