Documenting DeLorean

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

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

Join the conversation
2 of 9 comments
  • Geozinger Geozinger on Nov 03, 2013

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

  • Blowfish Blowfish on Nov 03, 2013

    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.

  • Akear I just realized 80% of these EV vehicles producers are going to be liquidated within the next five years. It is not possible to survive by selling only 3000 vehicles a year. This reminds me of the bust of the late 90s and early 2000s. Those who don't learn from history repeat it.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic I drove a rental Renegade a few years back. Felt the engine (TIgerShark) was ready was ready to pop out from under the hood. Very crude!! Sole purpose was CAFE offsets. Also drove a V6 Cherokee which was very nice and currently out of production. Should be able to scoop up one at a fair deal.🚗🚗🚗
  • Inside Looking Out This is actually the answer to the question I asked not that long ago.
  • Inside Looking Out Regarding "narrow windows" - the trend is that windows will eventually be replaced by big OLED screens displaying some exotic place or may even other planet.
  • Robert I have had 4th gen 1996 model for many years and enjoy driving as much now as when I first purchased it - has 190 hp variant with just the right amount of power for most all driving situations!