G.M. Renegade John Delorean Toots His Own Horn with a New Life, New Book and a New Car
01/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
Six years ago John Z. (for Zachary) DeLorean was earning $650,000 a year as a General Motors vice-president—with a passably clear track to the presidency—when he stunned Detroit by abruptly quitting. Two months ago he rocked Motor City again, this time because of a book that attacks his old company for waste, corruption, neglect of consumers and corporate amorality. Among some cringing auto company men, the book has made him a hero—"He's the only man who ever fired General Motors," as one admirer puts it. Now DeLorean, who will be 55 this week, is about to go that one better. Next fall he will market a new sports car of his own design and production, and he has convinced some GM dealers to distribute it. "Don't people believe you can start a business these days?" DeLorean asks skeptics. "I'd like to show that a bunch of little guys can make it."
The humility is attractive but a bit disingenuous. DeLorean Motor Company is a $200 million operation backed by a consortium of investors in the U.S. and Europe (Johnny Carson among them). DeLorean himself is hardly the average internal-combustion tinkerer. A twice-divorced bon vivant whose romantic life has been as prodigious as his business career, DeLorean fled Detroit in part, he says, because he was bored with it.
The disenchantment is plain in his book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors. Written by the former Detroit bureau chief of Business Week, J. Patrick Wright, and billed as DeLorean's "own story," the book charges GM with official nonchalance toward the Corvair (a car that inspired Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed). It ridicules numbing, time-wasting rituals of paper-shuffling in the executive suites and waxes outraged at the perks demanded by top GM brass. (To provide a traveling sales executive with his customary midnight snack, the book charges, GM took out a window in his hotel suite and lowered in a fully stocked refrigerator by crane.) After giving Wright all his ammunition, DeLorean pulled out of their publishing agreement—thereby saving his skin with GM—but Wright published the book anyway. "It came out a lot tougher than was my intention," DeLorean says. "I wanted it to be constructive." Then he smiles and adds, "GM hasn't retaliated. In fact they've offered me an opportunity to merge with their Iranian subsidiary." A Ford factory worker's son who paid his own way through college and earned master's degrees in automotive engineering and business at night, DeLorean insists he has goodwill toward his old company: "GM was very good to me. I was an unsophisticated transmission engineer who was given many opportunities."
What GM never appreciated, he says, was his life-style. Six-foot-four with movie star good looks, DeLorean is a physical fitness zealot who works out three times a week and is as proud of his 30-inch waist as of his latest marketing coup. Between his three marriages, he squired the likes of Ursula Andress, Joey Heatherton, Candice Bergen and Nancy Sinatra. Such glamorous escorts, along with his modishly long hair and turtleneck sweaters, scandalized automotive society. In 1973 he married fashion model Cristina Ferrare—she had lived with him for three months before saying, "Either we marry or I am leaving." The clatter of tongues grew louder. He was 48, she was 23. "I consider myself young for my age, so that wasn't a problem for us," he says. "But Cristina wasn't accepted into Detroit society, and I didn't want to subject her to that kind of vindictiveness. When I told her I wanted to leave, she supported me 100 percent."
Some of that support has been financial; Cristina earns $300,000 a year (well over $2,000 a day) as a model for Virginia Slims, Max Factor and others. When he decided to start his own car company, DeLorean plowed in more than $4 million of his own. "You don't do a thing like this for the money," he says. "It will be nine or 10 years until I realize a profit—if it is successful."
In any case money is at present hardly a problem for the DeLoreans. They live in an elegant Fifth Avenue duplex and are now shopping for a Connecticut house to supplement their Beverly Hills apartment and 500-acre California avocado ranch. Although both have hectic careers, they make time for the children—their daughter, Kathryn, 2, and a son, Zachary, 8, whom DeLorean adopted after the breakup of his second marriage. "I adopted him as a single man," he explains, "because I never thought I would marry again. He had a good nurse and I always took him with me. It sounds weird, but it was a good thing." After marrying John, Cristina took time off for a year to get to know Zachary. "Finally, after seven months he called me 'Mommy' and accepted me as his mother," she recalls.
DeLorean's first wife was his secretary; she lasted 12 years. His subsequent marriage to sportscaster Tom Harmon's 20-year-old daughter, Kelly, was over in three. Now DeLorean says, "I'm so in love I can't stand it. I feel this is the only marriage I've ever had." He admits that workaholism broke up his first marriage, but insists he has changed. "My priorities are different," he says. "I try to spend two or three hours a day with my family." His appetites are intact—but strictly monogamous. "Anyone who has accomplished anything has got some sexual aggression," he says. "Right now we're working hard to have more children."
DeLorean spends almost two weeks a month visiting the factory in Belfast where, with the help of $120 million in British development grants, he plans to produce his first 8,000 cars this year. Called the DMC-12 ("He wanted to call it Cristina," his wife cracks, "but the backside wasn't wide enough"), the six-cylinder rear-engine vehicle features gull-wing doors and a stainless-steel skin. DeLorean expects it to retail for about $15,000. "It is a product that is the essence of being ethical," he boasts, citing its mileage (23 mpg in the city), freedom from "planned obsolescence" and expected lifetime of 20 years. "I'm trying to emulate BMW," he says. "If the car fulfills consumer expectations, it will grow into a BMW. It would never compete with General Motors." Even if his enterprise fails, DeLorean knows he can't go home to Detroit again. "It would be impossible," he says, gazing out the window of his 43rd-floor office on Park Avenue. "If they offered me GM, Ford and Chrysler, I wouldn't go back."