De Lorean, John Z.

De Lorean, John Z.
Jan. 6, 1925-Mar. 19, 2005
American automobile executive

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One of the men responsible for the Detroit auto makers' dramatic shift in the 1960's to the production of smaller, more efficient automobiles is John Z. DeLorean, the flamboyant, nonconformist automotive engineer and corporation executive. DeLorean, who joined the General Motors Corporation in 1956 as director of advanced engineering for the Pontiac division, rose quickly through the ranks to become, in 1972, group executive in charge of all North American car and truck operations. Admired by his colleagues for his ingenious product innovations, DeLorean owns more than 200 patents, including those for the recessed windshield and the overhead-cam engine. An equally adept administrator, he revitalized the Pontiac and Chevrolet divisions of General Motors, setting sales records for both. Since his unexpected resignation in 1973, DeLorean has turned his attention to national and local social welfare programs and to his widespread business interests, among them, the DeLorean Corporation, an engineering firm.

Throughout his executive career at General Motors, DeLorean developed programs, such as "Operation Opportunity," to recruit and train ex-convicts and other hard-core unemployed persons. As president of the National Alliance of Businessmen, he expanded that organization's employment training programs for economically disadvantaged minorities. "Success, measured only by economic advantage or social status, can lead to defensiveness, breeding narrowness and isolation from the realities of a rapidly changing world," he said in a speech to the Young President's Organization in Honolulu, Hawaii in March 1973. "In our affluent society, it seems to me, we should have done a better job of sharing success with those less fortunate and also with those who were denied the equal right to achieve on their own."

The oldest of the four sons of Zachary R. DeLorean, a foundry worker for the Ford Motor Company, and Katharine (Pribak) DeLorean, John Zachary DeLorean was born in Detroit, Michigan on January 6, 1925. When his parents separated, DeLorean shuttled back and forth between his mother's residence in Los Angeles and his father's home in a racially mixed, working-class neighborhood in Detroit. "I know about being a street kid," he told Paul Hendrickson in an interview for the Detroit Free Press (February 10, 1974). "I learned about getting in trouble. I thought the whole world grew up like I did. Only later, after I learned to tell Wednesday from Thursday, did I realize that half those kids I had played stickball in the streets with would never get a real chance to make it."

After he graduated from high school, DeLorean attended the Lawrence Institute of Technology in Detroit on a music scholarship. Ambitious and hard-working, he played saxophone in a jazz band at local black and tan clubs to earn extra money. In 1948 he obtained a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering and, later that year, joined the engineering staff of the Chrysler Corporation. By continuing his education at night, he earned an M.A. degree in industrial engineering from the Chrysler Institute in 1952 and an M.B.A. degree from the University of Michigan in 1957. He also earned some credits toward a law degree.

Because the Chrysler Corporation was, in his words, "too big for [him] to be noticed," DeLorean resigned in 1952 to become chief of research and development for the Packard Motor Company, a smaller automobile manufacturer. There he gained firsthand knowledge of the dozens of different operations involved in the design and production of a new automobile. Discontented with the company's administration, which he later described as being "similar to Czechoslovakia's," DeLorean began looking around for a new position in the mid-1950's. Prodded by Semon E. ("Bunkie") Knudsen, then the general manager of General Motors Corporation's Pontiac division, DeLorean reluctantly agreed to interview for a job with Pontiac. "It was unbelievable, everything was so old-fashioned," he reminisced during an interview with Brock Yates for a Sports Illustrated (December 15, 1969) profile. "[The chief engineer] was sitting behind his desk, wearing a pair of those old high-top leather shoes and packing a big wad of cigars in his shirt pocket—the prototype old-fashioned auto man." Knudsen, however, managed to convince DeLorean that he intended to update Pontiac's conservative image, and the young engineer signed on as director of advanced engineering in 1956.

Working under the direction of Knudsen and Elliot M. Estes, the chief engineer for the Pontiac division, DeLorean conceived the boldly designed, high-powered, wide-track Catalinas and Bonnevilles. When driven by such prominent auto racers as Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherby, those cars captured first place in most of the major stock car races in the United States. Among other engineering and design innovations credited to DeLorean are the overhead-cam engine, concealed windshield wipers, the Endura bumper, and the Tempest drive chain. The Tempest, Pontiac's first compact car, which won Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year award in 1961, helped boost Pontiac from sixth place in sales among American car manufacturers to third place.

Promoted to chief engineer in 1961, DeLorean continued to push for strikingly new, up-to-the-minute designs. To keep in touch with changing trends, he regularly tuned to rock music radio stations. "These rock stations, the things they say, what they discuss, that's what counts," he told James Jones in an interview for Newsweek (September 16, 1968). "It's the cheapest education you can get." When the management of General Motors prohibited its divisions from racing their new models in 1963, DeLorean introduced the sporty GTO (named after the Ferrari coupe, Gran Turismo Omologato) to attract and hold racing enthusiasts. To promote the new car, he backed a massive publicity campaign that included T-shirts, emblems, and the hit recording, "Little GTO," as well as more traditional advertising techniques. By the end of the model year, the entire run of 31,000 GTO's had been exhausted. Within two years, GTO sales nearly tripled. In recognition of DeLorean's stunning achievement, GM executives in 1965 named him general manager of the Pontiac division.

During his four-year tenure as Pontiac's general manager, DeLorean approved a number of unique automotive designs, including vertically stacked headlights, racing stripes, distinctive split grilles, instrument clusters angled toward the driver, and cockpit-like interiors. The lean, aggressive Firebird and the luxuriously appointed Grand Prix accounted for nearly half of Pontiac's startling sales increase between 1964, when the division sold 688,000 cars, and 1968, when its sales topped 877,000. In 1965 Motor Trend awarded Pontiac its third Car of the Year award in six years for "styling and engineering leadership in the development of personalized passenger cars," singling out the GTO, the Grand Prix, the Catalina and its two-plus-two options, the compact Tempest, and the Bonneville, the longest and most elegant Pontiac model, as examples of the division's styling genius.

On February 1, 1969 John DeLorean was named general manager of GM's foundering Chevrolet division. Once a leader in domestic sales, Chevrolet's share of the profits had dropped from a high of 31.6 percent in 1962 to a low of 24.2 percent in 1968. Its failure to maintain a respectable sales level contributed to an overall decline in General Motors' profit margin from 10 percent in 1962 to 7 percent in 1969. Because Chevrolet executives failed to account for changes in the automotive market, the division trailed behind its competitors in introducing new models and features. For example, Ford's fastback Mustang predated Chevrolet's comparable entry, the Camaro, by more than two years.

In addition, Chevrolet suffered from inadequate quality control, an inefficient management structure, and increased competition from foreign automobile manufacturers and from other GM divisions, especially Pontiac. To acquaint himself with Chevrolet's problems, DeLorean visited plants and sales rooms, where he talked to assembly-line workers, supervisors, and dealers. Returning to his home office, he trimmed Chevrolet's management by 10 percent to, in his words, "drive every decision down to the lowest level possible," recruited young, imaginative engineers and middle managers, and tightened the lines of communication between departments. He established a systems-development team to improve the division's response time and hired planning specialists to coordinate divisional activities.

Furthermore, DeLorean revised advertising and marketing procedures and initiated an extensive pre-production and post-production testing program. To cut costs, he eliminated dozens of model variations, cutting, for instance, the Camaro's possible dashboard combinations from more than 2,700 to ninety-six. Within months he had turned the faltering operation around. In 1969 the Chevrolet division accounted for about one-half of General Motors' corporate volume, running just 200,000 cars behind Ford Motor Company's total domestic output.

To attract younger, more affluent, and upwardly mobile automobile buyers, DeLorean ordered drastically new models. "These people set trends, they establish mental attitudes about cars and are excellent market indicators," he explained to Brock Yates. "We can make cars that will run 100,000 miles with minimum trouble and expense. Therefore, we've got to build a new product that will lure the customer out of his old car long before it's worn out."

In September 1970 DeLorean unveiled the Vega to compete with Ford's Pinto and the American Motors Corporation's Gremlin, confidently predicting that first-year sales of the new compact would top 375,000. "This will be the best damned car ever built in America," he assured Al Rothenberg during an interview for Look (August 25, 1970). "The first 3,000 cars off the line get a long road test—every one of them. If a problem develops, we'll continue to drive the cars until it's ironed out. Nobody, not even Cadillac, ever launched a product with that kind of test." The following year, sales of Vega's four models helped to make Chevrolet the first of the "Big Three's" automobile divisions to sell more than 3,000,000 cars and trucks in a single year. But not all of DeLorean's programs proved so successful. His so-called "K-project" to design and build 2,800-pound compact versions of the Nova, the Camaro, and the Ventura was turned down by his immediate superiors.

Considered a possible successor to Edward N. Cole, who was the president of General Motors until he retired in 1974, DeLorean became group executive in charge of North American car and truck operations, one of the corporation's top executive spots, in 1972. Shortly after taking over his new post, DeLorean outlined a cost-cutting program designed to save GM as much as $1 billion annually. Among other things, he recommended that restyling decisions be made earlier in the design cycle and that the actual physical changes be made at night and on weekends to keep plant closings to a minimum, but both suggestions were vetoed by higher GM officials. Bucking his colleagues, who favored a year's extension of the 1975 deadline for meeting auto emission control standards set by Congress, DeLorean argued that General Motors should try to meet the original deadline by installing the successfully tested catalytic converter in new models.

"There's no forward response at General Motors to what the public wants today," he complained to Rush Loving Jr. in an interview for Fortune (September 1973). "It was like standing in the boiler room and tending a machine and you were just watching it instead of running it." Frustrated by the inactivity, DeLorean publicly questioned his future at GM, and on April 18, 1973 he resigned, effective May 31, 1973. "I want to do things in the social area," he explained to newsmen. "I have to do them and, unfortunately, the nature of our business just didn't permit me to do as much as I wanted."

One week after announcing his resignation from General Motors, DeLorean took over the presidency of the National Alliance of Businessmen (NAB), a private organization founded in 1968 to provide training and jobs for the chronically unemployed. Handpicked for the nonpaying position by Richard C. Gerstenberg, the chairman of General Motors and of the NAB, DeLorean expanded the Alliance's operations to include special programs for ex-offenders and American Indians.

Concerned about the public's generally unfavorable opinion of big business, DeLorean urged corporate executives to restore their companies' credibility in the marketplace by working toward product quality. "The public no longer cares if a product is bigger, better, longer, wider, prettier, or whatever," he told members of the Management Alumni Association in a speech at Texas Christian University on April 10, 1974. "All they want to know for sure is does the damned thing work." To alleviate employee discontent, he suggested that more compromises be reached between labor and management and that the seniority system be restructured. Although he cautioned against rampant growth, DeLorean approved bigness in business as essential and, in many cases, desirable. "It requires enormous resources to design, engineer, test, sell, and service better quality products," he reminded his audience. "It takes good management and more capital to provide a decent environment for workers and to help train those who need jobs. It takes technical skills and money to depollute industrial operations and to learn how to recycle materials in order to conserve our natural resources by using them more efficiently in the future."

When his year-long appointment to the NAB ended in 1974, DeLorean turned down several lucrative offers from major corporations and formed his own company. The DeLorean Corporation, an engineering and market consulting firm, specializes in the design and development of automobiles, campers, and travel trailers. One of its ongoing projects is the design of a high-quality, mid-engine sports car similar to the Mercedes-Benz. With his brother Jack, DeLorean founded Grand Prix of America, a string of miniature race tracks for under-sized racers powered by rotary engines. He also runs a profitable Cadillac dealership and serves as an occasional consultant to General Motors. His other interests include part ownership of the San Diego Chargers and the New york Yankees and a number of real estate holdings. He recently transformed his two cattle ranches into year-round camps for underprivileged children.

Described by one reporter as standing out among corporation executives "like a Corvette Stingray in a showroom full of GMC trucks," the six-foot-four-inch John DeLorean has coalblack hair, blue eyes, and the profile of a matinee idol. He keeps his weight at an even 170 pounds by watching his diet closely and by following a daily regimen of physical exercise. A sports enthusiast, he plays tennis, rides horses, and shoots golf in the low seventies. His indoor recreations include reading, sculpting, composing, and writing. In 1975 Playboy Press published his book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, an account of his career as a corporation executive that was written with the assistance of J. Patrick Wright. For several years he has been working on a political novel.

Energetic and seemingly tireless, DeLorean thrives on four hours of sleep and, according to one admiring colleague, can do a day's work in half an hour. "It's still like I'm only twenty-seven and the whole wide apple of the world is waiting out there for me to take a bite of," he told Paul Hendrickson. "Someday maybe I'll wake up and discover I'm not twenty-seven. But until then, I guess I'll keep living on adrenalin…. I could lay around on some beach for the rest of my life, but that's not my style," he added. "I'm running because it turns me on." DeLorean and his third wife, Christina Ferrare, an actress and fashion model whom he married on May 8, 1973, live in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan with their adopted son, Zachary Thomas.

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