Call him what you will — a con man or a visionary, a winner or a loser. John DeLorean was all these things, a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
A brilliant automotive engineer who was on a trajectory to becoming the president of General Motors, the world’s biggest car manufacturer, he was the creator of the short-lived DeLorean Motor Company, which collapsed after his arrest by FBI agents in a sting operation.
DeLorean’s rise and fall is expertly explored by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce in Framing John Delorean, a documentary that opens in Canada on June 7. Consisting of file footage and interviews with his family and former associates and rivals, the film dramatizes his career through vivid reenactments in which the actor Alec Baldwin plays DeLorean.
DeLorean worked for Packard and Chrysler before landing at General Motors. As general manager of the Pontiac division, he created the GTO, a so-called muscle car that appealed to the younger generation. Although DeLorean’s bosses were skeptical about its marketability, the GTO was a huge success and burnished his reputation as an outside-of-the-box thinker and an up-and-coming executive.
Everything he touched turned gold, but because he was an outspoken maverick who clashed with his superiors, he was forced out of General Motors. This gave him the opportunity to realize his dream of building a futuristic sports car for the masses.
The first prototype of the “DMC 12” was introduced in 1976. Sleek, with gull-wing doors, it was a powerful, aesthetically pleasing car made of non-corrosive materials. “This was everything he was working for,” says his adopted son.
Buoyed by British government subsidies, DeLorean built a plant in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which suffered from high unemployment and religious strife.
The first car rolled off the assembly line in 1981, but technical glitches plagued the first models and sales fell sharply. Instead of cutting back production, DeLorean doubled it, and soon he ran out of capital.
In desperation, he hooked up with James Hoffman, a notorious drug dealer, hoping to acquire enough funds to keep his company going. Unbeknownst to him, Hoffman was an FBI informant. A jury in Los Angeles in 1984 acquitted him after a sensational trial, but by then his company had gone bankrupt, throwing workers out of jobs they had expected to hold for many years.
Within days of his acquittal, DeLorean’s wife, Christina, a supermodel, left him.
Subsequently, he was embroiled in a $17 million embezzlement scandal that tarnished him as well.
DeLorean’s car achieved a measure of immortality after its appearance in the 1985 Hollywood blockbuster Back to the Future. But for all intents and purposes, DeLorean never regained his footing after the demise of his company. He declared bankruptcy in 2000 and lived in a one-bedroom apartment until his death five years later at the age of 80.
As the filmmakers correctly suggest, he was a modern-day Icarus.