My Car Quest

April 19, 2024

Mr. Cool Guy, John Z. DeLorean

by Wallace Wyss –

I believe in the personality cult of the auto industry. If you have a dynamic leader, one who fires on all cylinders so to speak, you can make automotive history. John Z. DeLorean, was one of these human dynamos.

When he left GM in ’73, I was disappointed. I had followed his fortunes when he was running Pontiac, especially since I would run into his right hand man at the McManus, John and Adams ad agency, Jim Wangers. Wangers was a dyed in the wool hot rodder, and would modify Pontiacs in an effort to show GM what could be built.

John DeLorean

DeLorean before he went Hollywood

What I remember DeLorean doing at Pontiac was:

– promoting the Grand Prix, a heavy car but it had a European sounding name and those oh-so-cool fog lamps in the front that were just turn signals. And don’t forget the two piece mag wheels.

– promoting the GTO. Again a European name stolen from an obscure Ferrari but the GTO was a real performer and well styled.

-promoting the Trans Am Capitalizing off a new racing series, he developed a car that wasn’t so good for Trans Am racing (they had to run with more reliable Chevy engines) but was sensational in looks.


Let’s face it, I worked in the GM Building from ’66 to ’70 and most of the executives there were pudgy, out of shape, “nebbishes”. DeLorean on the other hand was 6’4”, wore dashing sideburns and fitted suits, drove a Maserati Ghibli (also reported to have owned a Lambo) and hung out on the West Coast with movie stars

He even married a Hollywood celeb Kelly Harmon, daughter of a famed football star, though he later divorced her to marry a model and TV personality, Christina Ferrare.
He ran the Pontiac Division in 1967 and 1968, pushing it to record sales in both years.

In 1969, they thought let’s move him over to GM’s Chevrolet Division, and over there I am sure he had a lot to do with the Camaro Z/28, a competitor to the Trans Am (but much more race worthy)

He liked high tech things and it was the bane of his existence that GM moved so slow on technology. One time he pushed an overhead cam six in the Pontiac but it was a flop.

By 1973, he had moved up to become GM’s vice president and group executive for North American cars and trucks — planning the destiny of Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC, and Canadian car and truck operations. Total sales of all those together was $25 billion.

Ironically it was not his work that put him out of sorts with management, it was just that he projected so youthful an image and dressed in such a personal style that he made all the other executives look bad. And he was always trying to get attention.

One time when Queen Elizabeth was going to arrive in Detroit by yacht he arranged to have a Chevy convertible gold plated in parts and delivered but was shocked when she turned it down. What—someone didn’t see the PR potential?

He was a wheeler dealer in business but some of his sins didn’t come out until years later. I remember when I was at Motor Trend, I met a man who had invented the coolant recovery system. He says he went to GM, sold it to DeLorean for a GM division but instead of GM using it on just that one brand, pretty soon every car they built used it but they only paid him for the first Division that used it. The man sued GM and just his first check when he won was $15 million.

DeLorean DMC-12

DeLorean DMC-12

His education was not sprinkled with names like Harvard or Yale, no he did it the hard way, he went to Cass Tech, and later Lawrence Tech where he would major in Engineering. At night he hung out in jazz clubs where he played the sax. It’s unknown what he did in WW II, he was drafted but I couldn’t find his wartime history. I know he went to Chrysler after earning a post-graduate degree in engineering at the Chrysler Institute in 1952.

John DeLorean

He went to Packard where he worked on the automatic trans, improving it to eliminate slippage. He decided to go to Pontiac, where he worked for a neighbor of mine, Pete Estes.

DeLorean was with two gearheads there, Estes and Bunkie Knudsen and together they came up with the wide track design, and the Bonneville, a sort of large hot rod.

At Pontiac DeLorean was in the right place at the right time for the muscle car wars. By stuffing a big 389 inch into a mid-size car (against Company policy but he got away with it when they saw the sales figures) he created the GTO.

Then all of Detroit followed with muscle cars from each brand but there were never true blue enthusiasts at the other firms that had he knowledge of muscle cars and foreign cars like DeLorean.

All the high performance models came to a screeching halt with the Arab Oil Embargo. Detroit had to make wimpy economy cars. DeLorean left to build a car under his own name, a two seater gullwinged coupe designed by one of the world’s great designers, Giorgetto Giugiaro.

That car was the DeLorean DMC-12 – there was even a limited edition gold plated DeLorean DMC-12.

The DeLorean DMC-12 was not nearly as innovative as he had planned originally. And then when sales were slow, and he had labor troubles, he got tempted into a quick cash deal in an FBI sting—taking cocaine to resell. He spent several million fighting the charges and won (losing his avocado ranch near San Diego in the process). But his career in the auto industry was over.

John DeLorean and His Car

John DeLorean and His Car

I always think that drug deal was engineered by the Brits, particularly Maggie Thatcher, who was furious that, after getting him a plant in Ireland, he knocked the labor force. But it didn’t matter, his dream car didn’t make it, and is only popular decades later by the accident of being cast in a Hollywood comedy sci-fi flick Back to the Future…

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss has authored 18 car books.


DeLorean DMC-12

Mr. Cool Guy, John Z. DeLorean
Article Name
Mr. Cool Guy, John Z. DeLorean
At Pontiac DeLorean was in the right place at the right time for the muscle car wars. By stuffing a big 389 cid into a mid-size car (against Company policy but he got away with it when they saw the sales figures) he created the GTO.


  1. The last time I saw John, he was walking across an intersection in front of me at 7am in a residential area, barefoot, hair totally messed up, white dress shirt buttoned hanging out and buttoned crooked, belt unbuckled, and obviously had quite the evening/weekend/week. The early 80s were a crazy time in L.A. I knew John well. My ex-husband supplied a lot of Mr. Delorean’s fuel back then. Note I said “ex” husband. Wink.

  2. Mike Miles says

    His little book On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors was generally panned but it did give some Dilbert-esque glimpse into the GM machine. I still recall parts of it when I see similar patterns in other companies.

  3. randy cox says

    I remember when DeLorean died…..I flashed back to times when I would see him at the Pancake House in West Bloomfield on Sundays in my teens.
    My family owned a Collision shop on Woodward Avenue and painted a lot of the stripes on the Royal Pontiac Bobcats and modified a lot of GTOS in assorted candy apple and Metal flake colors..
    I ultimately became a designer at Ford Motor and it seemed he was always in the news.
    I was driving home down Woodward on an early evening when my eye caught a long row of DeLorean cars all parked with the gullwing doors in the open position. I then noted that they were in front a funeral home! I quickly turned around and stopped. I went inside not really knowing what to expect, but sure enough, there was John DeLorean laid out to rest!!!! He was dressed in a blue blazer, open light blue shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. A pair of sunglass were in the suit coat pocket. Pure DeLorean to the end.

  4. Bruce Caron says

    A couple of days ago I watched an old episode of a show called “For the love of Cars”. The episode was about bringing a Delorean back from being stored in a garage for decades. They later sold the car at auction and set a record (at that time) for the highest selling Delorean.

    They mentioned that one mistake Delorean made was to place the engine further back so that he could have rooms for his golf clubs. This caused problems with the placement of the transmission, etc.

    Fun show featuring Ant Anstead who also appears on Wheel Dealers.

  5. wallace wyss says

    NEWS FLASH It figures–to play the DeLorean lead role in a film about him called Framing John DeLorean, they needed a brash in-your-face kinda guy and I ask you–who is more brash and in-your-face than Alec Baldwin? On a TV show Baldwin was knocking John’s manner of dress, grooming and the like but I theorize ol Alec will like being studly for once and maybe change his life style, Filmed in NZ. i expect it to be a whole family drama, his wife involved and all, with the title referring to the fact DeLorean was “set up:”for a driug bust, whereupon he lost his fortune fighting the charges.

  6. lennox McNeely says

    Wells Auto in Milton Ontario specializes in bringing Deloreans back–goggle “A repair shop that specializes in Deloreans–We left logic behind a long time ago.” -subject of our national newspaper.

  7. Paul Ballentine says

    DMC sounds very like Tucker, no real engineering- just a scam.

  8. wallace wyss says

    I think what undid DeLorean at GM was when he posed for a magazine lifting weights, bare chested and the other wives of GM execs could point to their fat husbands and say “Why can’t you exercise like John? Plus he drove a Maserati Ghibli, dated movie starlets and knew about European cars (approving names for cars like Grand Prix) I think Baldwin will be able to get into his headspace…

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