David Mullen takes a wary look at Belfast’s supposed ‘knight in stainless steel’
To understand just why the British government threw £85 million at John DeLorean’s Belfast operation and, as a result, down the drain, one has to remember the times they were living in.Industry in the United Kingdom in 1978 was in the doldrums. The motor industry there was in collapse with inflation sky-high and unemployment levels not seen since the Thirties.
Northern Ireland had the same problems due to the downturn in manufacturing industries but with the addition of a civil war going on. Whatever chance Britain had of attracting foreign investment, Northern Ireland seemed to have none.
So, when the American John DeLorean came hawking his sports car and promising to create thousands of jobs in Belfast, to the Northern Ireland Development Authority (NIDA) and the British government, he looked like the answer to their prayers.
John Zachary DeLorean’s reputation preceded him. He was the son of Romanian immigrants to the US and was a talented engineer, rising up through the ranks at the Packard company before being poached by General Motors to work in the company’s Pontiac division.
DeLorean was a rule-breaker and he made waves at Pontiac, masterminding sporty cars like the GTO, which rapidly turned the company from a staid, faltering brand into the third biggest seller in the US.
His success with Pontiac led him to be promoted to boss at Chevrolet where he oversaw further success with cars like the Vega.
Being the head of Chevrolet conferred upon DeLorean some celebrity status and he was quick to adopt the jet-setter lifestyle, one which he would uphold long after it became prudent to do so.
In a world of dull men in three-piece suits, DeLorean’s sideburns and unbuttoned shirts marked him out as a maverick.
In 1972, he was promoted again to vice-president of General Motors, at 47, the youngest ever. With his flair for engineering and marketing, it looked like the next step would be the presidency of GM. But DeLorean had other ideas.
He wanted to build his own car and his own company—something that, unlike other American cars of the time, was durable, safe and economical.
In 1975, he founded the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) in Detroit. The prototype car that emerged in 1976 was certainly striking. Designed by engineer Bill Collins and Italian stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro, the DMC-12 featured gullwing doors and stainless-steel body panels which wouldn’t rust.