John Z. De Lorean

American Driver

John Z. De Lorean died following a stroke, while his former employer General Motors was being buffeted by an apparently endless parade of bad news and the New York International Automobile Show was just throwing open the doors for its annual press preview. To this distant observer, it looked as though they were hustling the great automotive con artist into the ground before he could launch another scam. My former assistant, the peripatetic Reilly P. Brennan, dropped by the funeral home to have a look at John Z.’s mortal remains and sent me an e-mail, part of which follows:”I approached the casket, and it hit me that this whole operation was art-directed by the man himself. He was there just a foot from me, laid out dead in a black motorcycle jacket, blue jeans, and a denim shirt. A pair of large, thick-rimmed Elvis sunglasses was tucked into his jacket zipper. Styled, arched eyebrows, the fake chin, and everything. The usual pulled skin of a corpse sort of made the whole thing fake but still JZD to the core. It was the rebel ethical-car-designer genius persona that he’s taking to the grave-probably his best cover of all of them if he wants to be immortalized.”

It struck me as altogether appropriate that De Lorean should choose press days of the New York auto show to expire, to shuffle off this mortal coil, to get himself bugled to Jesus, to shoot through, to die. For a swindler and a liar, he was oddly fond of publicity, and we don’t know how many lies he might have told or how many innocent people he might have cheated if his creator had given him another month. Death was the one rap he couldn’t beat. I worked with and for De Lorean from February 1969 until October 1972. During that time, he was general manager of GM’s Chevrolet Division, and I was executive vice president and creative director of Chevrolet’s advertising agency, Campbell-Ewald. This was the peak of John’s Engelbert Humperdinck period. He wore black three-piece suits with the vests unbuttoned and white shirts with collar points that reached down to his nipples. His hair was dyed black, and his sideburns were long. He could never look you in the eye for more than a second, and the lower half of his face was weak-a weakness he attempted to disguise with reconstructive surgery that left him looking eerily as though a third thumb were sprouting from his chin. He wanted desperately to be admired by the rich and famous, but he was also drawn to the grifters, the wise guys, and the scam artists of that loopy, disjointed era.

There are those in the daily press-Danny Hakim at the New York Times comes to mind-who continue to write about De Lorean as though he really was the rebel ethical-car-designer genius that he claimed to be. There is some unkillable belief that De Lorean was the true automotive messiah who would have fixed everything if stuffy old GM hadn’t crucified him. Baloney.

The whole world saw De Lorean’s automotive genius for exactly what it was when he conned the British government out of $134 million to build the-what? The De Lorean DMC-12! The gull-winged, stainless-steel-bodied, Peugeot/Renault/Volvo V-6-powered, Giugiaro-designed lemon of lemons that was dead on arrival at America’s golden shore. Given a free hand, the great automotive visionary had delivered a large, rear-engined dud. And, in the process, he had fleeced everybody who helped him along the way, including Britain’s prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, who kicked in an additional $33 million in an ill-advised and unsuccessful attempt to keep De Lorean afloat. There’s no obvious reason to doubt that John Z. got away with a sizable chunk of the British government’s money.

Later, we all watched our TV sets in amazement as he hefted a bag of cocaine with a big grin and exclaimed, “It’s better than gold!” That was just a moment or two before his potential drug suppliers and underworld investors revealed themselves as federal agents. Once again, De Lorean the grifter, the con man, the scam artist, had wrecked things for De Lorean the defender of all America holds dear.