I s a life marred by character flaws that ended in disappointment yet worth celebrating? In the case of John Z. DeLorean, who died earlier this month in New Jersey at the age of 80, the answer is yes with qualifications.
Few of us would want to model our lives after DeLorean, but it’s difficult not to admire his individualism, spunk and style. His signature enterprise crashed and burned, leaving disappointed investors and a newly ignominious reputation in its wake. But he had genuine achievements and innovations to his credit as well.
Born in Detroit, the son of a Ford Motor Co. hourly worker, DeLorean went to college to learn engineering and briefly conquered the automotive industry. After short stints at Chrysler and Packard, he went to work for the Pontiac division of General Motors. His signature innovation was the GTO in 1964, created by putting a V-8 engine in a Pontiac body, the first of the so-called “muscle cars.” The public loved them and profits soared. He was promoted to head both Chevrolet and Pontiac and seemed on the path to the GM presidency.
In 1973, however, having established a reputation as flamboyant and edgy, he quit or was pushed out of GM. He established the DeLorean Motor Co. in Belfast, Northern Ireland (helped by hefty subsidies from British taxpayers, arranged by British governments that thought creating jobs would subdue the ongoing Irish rebellion).
While the car that resulted acquired a cult following and was used in the “Back to the Future” movies, it never caught on that well and the company never achieved solvency. There were tales of shady dealings, and in 1982 DeLorean was caught on videotape apparently selling some $24 million worth of cocaine in a Los Angeles hotel room. He was eventually acquitted because the jury believed the FBI had entrapped him, but he and his company were ruined. Several attempts to reinvent himself failed and he declared bankruptcy in 1999.
After DeLorean left, GM lost market share and was in decline for years. DeLorean the flashy innovator eventually failed. Perhaps stodgy corporations need to learn how to tolerate and nurture mavericks and innovators who can be discomfiting. On the other side, many bright and ambitious entrepreneurs need accountants with enough clout to keep their more unrealistic visions in check. And they shouldn’t get taxpayers’ money to fulfill their dreams.
John DeLorean, whatever his faults and flaws, made our lives more interesting and left behind some solid achievements. Hardly perfect, but not bad.