By on November 2, 2013

Don’t call me Ishmael, but it seems to me that stories of failure are perhaps more engaging than those of success. Sure, we all love a good Horatio Alger story of someone pulling their socks up and making something of themselves, but they’ve made a lot more movies about the Titanic than stories about the Queens Mary and Elizabeth, both 1 and 2 all combined. The same is true of the automotive world. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there’s never been a theatrical movie dramatizing the life of Henry Ford (Cliff Robertson played him in a television mini-series and PBS’s *The American Experience recently profiled Ford on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth) but I bet you remember Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker. Maybe there’s more dramatic meat to work with, the inherent tragedy of one’s reach exceeding one’s grasp, in a notable failure. Perhaps that’s why there have been a number of documentaries produced about John Zachary DeLorean’s eponymous company and the car that it produced (and why there was even a Bricklin musical). It needs saying, also, that a lot of the interest in the DeLorean can be attributed to the car’s starring role in the Back To The Future movie franchise. Combine a pop culture icon and the dramatic failure of a bravura personality and there’s bound to be interest.

Since the British government’s money backed DeLorean’s factory in Belfast, Northern Ireland, it’s not surprising that the BBC has looked at the subject. 1995’s Car Crash: The DeLorean Story lays out the basic outlines of the story, emphasizing the perspective of locals who got jobs with the automotive startup and the political aspects of the story. The DeLorean factory closed in 1982 after Margaret Thatcher’s government decided not to continue the funding that had begun under the Labor party, but the BBC film also points out that the early cars had horrendous quality control and were overpriced at a time of record high interest rates and economic stagnation in the U.S., the car’s primary market.

The DeLorean car is also the subject of a more recent documentary, Wings of Stainless Steel, by filmmaker Rob Tyler, who produced the film as a student project for Salisbury University. It’s nicely done and Tyler managed to dig up some archival film that has rarely been seen.

I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising that documentary filmmakers gravitate to the DeLorean story. It turns out that famed cinema verite documentarian, D.A. Pennebaker, whose films like those chronicling the 1960s music scene, Don’t Look Back (about Bob Dylan) and Monterey Pop, continue influence documentary filmmakers today, got an inside look at the DeLorean enterprise and released his own film, DeLorean, in 1981. The film was made before DeLorean Motor Company failed, so to a viewer who already knows that the story isn’t going to have a happy ending, it’s an interesting perspective to see, watching the trainwreck approach. While Pennebaker clearly had insider access, he didn’t shy away from portraying some ominous clouds.

To be frank, I’m surprised that Hollywood or some independent producer hasn’t made a theatrical motion picture about John DeLorean (though the band Neon Neon did a concept album, Stainless Style, ostensibly based on DeLorean’s life). He had a great life story. In one of the documentaries, there’s archival footage of John describing himself as an excellent engineer. While not a modest statement it was absolutely true. He had an outstanding track record first as an engineer at Packard and later at GM, where in addition to some clever engineering, he became an able manager, turning Pontiac from an also ran into GM’s performance division, before running Chevrolet.

This documentary from the Game Show Network, The Crash of John Z. Delorean, takes a closer look at the man, than the documentaries that focus on his company and his car.

Add his movie star looks and those of his supermodel wife, his charismatic personality and his non-comformity among Detroit’s suits as he rose to positions of considerable power, and you’d have the makings of a pretty decent drama even before you consider the history of the DeLorean Motor Company and DeLorean’s personal denouement when he was arrested (and later acquitted) in a cocaine sting.

*Unlike the History Channel’s The Men Who Built America, which had some serious inaccuracies about Henry Ford, the PBS documentary about Ford seems reliable in terms of history, though it did bungle one fact. In describing the public offering of Ford stock that Henry Ford II organized after his grandfather’s death in 1947, the American Experience film says the the stock sale meant the end of Ford family control of Ford Motor Company. In fact, when Ford went public, it established two classes of stock and while investors can put money into common shares of Ford and benefit from dividends and capital gains, it’s the 70 million shares of Class B Ford stock whose ownership is currently restricted to Bill Ford Jr. and his 12 cousins that have actual control of the car company. Henry Ford never liked having investors, having lost control the Henry Ford Company, whose backers turned it into Cadillac with Henry Leland’s help, before starting the Ford Motor Company (actually, not mentioning the Henry Ford Company and how it became Cadillac is one flaw of the PBS show). In 1919, after years of lawsuits and what today we’d call greenmail, Ford bought out investors like the Dodge brothers, John Lodge and Horace Rackham who had put money in FoMoCo very early on. That left Henry owning 100% of the stock. He kept 49%, giving Edsel 48%, and Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, the remaining 3%. After Edsel died in 1943 and a stroke afflicted and probably senile Henry reasserted day to day control of Ford Motor Company, Eleanor and Clara explained to him that they owned 51% of the company and that unless he relinquished operational control to his grandson, they’d sell their stock. So who controls Ford Motor Company is very important to the Ford family. It was reported back in 2007, after years of trying to turn the company around, Bill Ford had to convince his cousins not to divest. Since Class B shares get turned into common shares if sold to anyone who isn’t a Ford family member, and if the number of shares of Class B stock fall below a certain level Class B shares lose control of the company, there’s a strong incentive for all of the cousins to keep things in the family. With the company now making record profits, they probably have no inclination to sell at this time.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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9 Comments on “Documenting DeLorean...”

  • avatar

    An interesting note about John Delorean was that he saw the overall decline is assembly quality of Pontiac cars and while he ran that division, and had created a “Quality” stop at the end the assembly line to correct bad panel fits and the like before shipping cars to dealers. GM brass considered it a waste of money and stopped the practice. When he built his cars he did the same because initial assembly was really poor. The cost for his QAC ate heavily into his potential for profit.

  • avatar

    Has any one ever done a proper rip snorting hot rod job on a DMC? I don’t mean slapping a super charger and custom heads on the original Volvo derived engine ( or was it a French engine).

    No I mean a real lets turn this cool stainless steel body into something that really goes handles and stops… You see ones that have been painted with major engine transmission problems over on Craig’s list from time to time for very cheap prices…

    I know lots of back to the future tribute cars have been made but that is not what o am wondering…. I want to know if anyone ever too one and made it in to a real super car to match its looks.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      It was BOTH a Volvo and French engine, the PRV.

    • 0 avatar

      Many have tried, but the unfortunate truth is that the Fiberglass and steel Y-shaped Chassis just isn’t meant to be pushed to extreme performance like that. It really doesn’t have the structure. You’d have to basically build a tube frame race car and then wrap the body around it somehow to get it to work, and then it really wouldn’t be a delorean anymore. People have done engine swaps, there’s been LS motors, Nissan VQ engines, Northstar’s, a Lotus V8, rotary’s, etc, but with the rather under-developed chassis and the engine hanging way out the back, it just can’t be made to corner properly. Best you can do is set the car at the proper European ride height, (which shares a suspension geometry with the contemporary lotus esprit) and try to make the engine lighter. I’d imagine a Hyabusa engine or something would work better than a V8 back there. Everyone I’ve ever spoken with who has tried to make one really perform hasn’t been so successful at it. Better to just appreciate them for what they are. I did the best I could with mine by going with the Stage II upgrade from DMC, which gives it 80 extra horsepower and 75 extra torques.

      • 0 avatar

        Matt, you know more about DeLoreans than I do but it’s essentially an Esprit with the drivetrain turned around and the later turbo V8 versions of the Esprit were pretty high powered (compared to the PRV V6). The Lotus backbone chassis is very stiff, torsionally stiffer than some unibodies of the day. Can it handle 500 HP? No, but that’s not what a Lotus is for.

        The Buick/Rover V8 has been swapped into a bunch of 907 Lotus 4 cyl based cars like the Esprit, Elite and Eclat. It’s all aluminum, doesn’t weigh much more than the Lotus four banger and it can be tuned to put out more than 300 HP. Last year, Derek put up a story about a BringATrailer listing of an Esprit powered by a Taurus SHO motor that looked to be well done.

        I think the problem with making high powered cars out of Lotus designs is that they’re usually well balanced designs and putting a ton of power in them just doesn’t fit the character of the car.

  • avatar

    My guess as to why there hasn’t been any kind of Hollywood movie on Delorean is the never ending legal ramifications as to who’s entitled to what profits in anything associated with the name Delorean. To this day, there’s surely still massive amounts of litigation still pending.

    But, if those hurdles could ever be overcome, and if it were done correctly, it would be a fascinating story. Delorean was one of the most charismatic (but flawed) personalities to ever come out of Detroit.

    One of the most interesting things about the man are the people who were his closest confidants. One of these was an extremely shady character named Roy Nesseth. Nesseth was a former car dealer who embodied all of the sleazy, evil that that position holds. It definitely seemed like a ying-yang situation where Delorean would be the genial opener in negotiations, but when it came down to the brass-tacks of closing the deal, Roy was called in. When Delorean needed any strong-arm tactics to accomplish his goals, he turned to Nesseth. In fact, the nefarious parts of the Delorean story all seem to trace back to his henchman Nesseth. He was to Delorean, for all intents and purposes, the same as Harry Bennett was to Henry Ford.

    It should be noted that, while none of this sounds good, the auto business, like politics, is a dog-eat-dog world and not for the faint of heart.

  • avatar

    I guess as far as the DeLorean is concerned, you could say there was more than one snow job involved …..

  • avatar

    A great post, Ronnie. I never knew the Game Show Network did investigative reporting!

  • avatar

    So what happened ? the British Govt / Thatcher et al refused to pump more mulla into this automobile black hole? Looks like they have a lot of buying orders but no $$ to keep building them. Then John got entrapped into the drug deal, later on it also involved with Lotus. As later read one bloke from Lotus( the accountant ?? ) rather went to jail than squeal or spill the truth.

    The manufacturing plant to build the new car was built in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, with substantial financial incentives from the Northern Ireland Development Agency of around £100 million. Renault was contracted to build the factory, which employed over 2000 workers at its peak production. The engine was made by Renault, while Lotus designed the chassis and bodywork details. The factory started manufacturing cars in early 1981, but the company was in receivership by February 1982. It turned out around 9,000 cars over 21 months before the British government ordered its closure in November 1982.

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