The Fast Lane

Grand Delusions: The Cosmic Career of John DeLorean.
by Hillel Levin.
Viking. 336 pp. $15.95.

Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John Z. DeLorean.
by Ivan Fallon and James Srodes.
Putnam. 455 pp. $16.95.

Delorean: Stainless Steel Illusion.
by John Lamm.
Newport Press. 160 pp. $17.95.

In April 1973, John Z. DeLorean, a man who had become a media legend in his own time, shocked the automotive and business world by resigning a position that had put him only a step or two away from the presidency of General Motors. Having resigned, he declared his intention to build an “ethical” sports car—one that would be distinguished by its ageless style, its provisions for safety, and its durability. Several years followed in which he raised money, some from private investors but most from the British government via the Northern Ireland Development Agency, established a dealer network, developed the car itself, and built a factory near Belfast. The first DeLorean Motor Company cars rolled off the assembly line in January 1981. DeLorean had realized his “dream,” as his enterprise had become characterized: he had brought a new car into a market that had seen no successful new names in over fifty years.

Alas, the dream promptly turned into a nightmare. Within another year, the factory was in receivership and the enterprise lurching into bankruptcy, revealing itself to be one of Bulgarian inefficiency and Byzantine complexity. Although prodigious amounts of money had been spent, the car itself was mainly distinguished by its deficiencies. And as if those reversals were not enough, DeLorean soon offered another: in October 1982, he was arrested in an FBI “sting” operation involving a cocaine transaction that, presumably, would have provided more money to salvage his failing company.

These three books, appearing a year after the arrest and as the pretrial maneuvers get under way, tell what went wrong with the dream. They assert that the fault lay with the dreamer, that DeLorean had neither the integrity nor the competence with which he had been credited during his tenure at GM. Yet the revelations also become an indictment, sometimes quite specific, of the gullible media that accepted and then fostered DeLorean’s image in the first place.

As an editor at Monthly Detroit, Hillel Levin was perhaps the first journalist (in 1981) to look into DeLorean’s private business affairs both during and after his tenure at GM. He found a tangle of deceptive transactions wherein everybody but DeLorean and his trusted associates lost. In Grand Delusions, he unravels those dealings at greater length and pursues the DeLorean thus revealed back to college days to show that the hustler was busy quite early. In college, for example, DeLorean sold advertising for his own Yellow Pages to merchants who thought they were getting the real thing, and was remembered by his classmates for his own corruption of an aphorism from John Philpot Curran: “Ceaseless vigilance is the price of dishonesty.”

Levin assigns a separate chapter to each succeeding installment of the story, from college to GM, from private entrepreneur to car builder, and finally to ignominious failure. The method gives coherence to the incredibly jumbled events of DeLorean’s later career, although the “human-interest” effects sometimes get in the way. However, they do keep the emphasis on individuals, some of whom emerge as genuinely heroic. One of these is Bill Collins, whose promising design work was seriously compromised by the arrogant Colin Chapman, of Lotus Cars, Ltd., when DeLorean hired Lotus to do development work. (The car turned out to be an ersatz Lotus perverted by DeLorean’s special obsession with “gull-wing” doors and a rear-engine layout.) Another, C. R. Brown, set up the marketing system, took the flak, and attended to the problems when the cars proved defective, then was summarily fired for his trouble when he refused to allow DeLorean to distribute cars that were under lien to the Bank of America.

Levin makes no pretensions to being an automotive specialist; perhaps for that reason he does not, as other writers have done, obscure the failings of the car itself out of enthusiasm for its alleged technical sophistication. His account of the denouement of the story affords ironic pleasure, as two elderly salvage buyers from Ohio outdealt the man who had been represented as a major financial wizard. Their company, Consolidated International, bought most of the unsold DeLorean Motor Company cars and is responsible for those that have trickled into the market since DMC declared bankruptcy.

Levin gives us an “armchair” DeLorean, in terms comprehensible to and sufficient for most people’s interest. His yeoman’s work, however, lags at the end because he cannot bring himself to judge DeLorean. His conclusion, that DeLorean was simply “one more victim of his unrealized dreams” and “his own outsize vision,” is an evasion. Still, Levin points to a significant truth when he writes:

No other entrepreneur in business history used publicity as well in amassing his seed capital, and he found that investors were as unlikely to look behind his hollow hype as reporters.

This damning judgment might well have been pursued farther.

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Ivan Fallon, an editor at the London Sunday Telegraph who wrote some of the definitive British news accounts of DeLorean’s fall, and James Srodes, a business writer on this side of the Atlantic, join forces in Dream Maker to produce a “case study” of DeLorean which gives considerably more detail than Levin on the development of the car company, particularly the financial arrangements and misarrangements. They also tell how the DeLorean story was played out in Great Britain—the arguments in Parliament, the threats of terror in Northern Ireland, and the development of the car itself under Colin Chapman. While of the three books under review this one gives the most details, the details sometimes lose effect; the exact path, for instance, by which money flowed from the Exchequer through DeLorean’s hands, and by what system of authority, is never quite clear. Moreover, Fallon and Srodes’s treatment of the dynamics by which the car passed from development into production suffers from a narrative mode that substitutes dialogue for much-needed analysis. But despite these imperfections, Dream Maker provides a proper and useful complement to Grand Delusions.

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If Levin aims primarily at the personal story, and Fallon and Srodes at the financial, John Lamm in Stainless Steel Illusion aims at the car itself. His is the “coffee-table” DeLorean, with lots of photographs of the car and the people involved, many of which, especially those taken by Lamm himself, are outstanding. His purpose is to outline the development and production of the car, and let DeLorean be what he may. Still, Lamm remains strongly under the spell that DeLorean cast over the automotive press, and as an unfortunate consequence he does not sufficiently question the car itself. He tells what it was, but does not ask what else it could have been. In this respect, DeLorean’s car still awaits a competent technical analysis.

Lamm’s unique contribution is to place DeLorean’s car in the context of similar cars. He traces the design mutations, through the efforts of Bill Collins and Georgetto Giugiaro and on to the warped execution at the hands of Colin Chapman’s group. He provides a survey of the factory and the production line, and includes a veritable photographic gallery of the car itself, along with extensive quotations from the road tests in the popular magazines (road tests which were, however, chary of analysis themselves). His account of the management or mismanagement of the company is less thorough, which is no deficiency in a book intended to satisfy the car enthusiast and those who bought a DeLorean as an “instant collectible.” For these, Lamm performs a valuable service, and very well, too.

Lamm also raises a question many have asked: was DeLorean’s enterprise doomed to failure by inauspicious circumstances, or could it have prospered with better management? Lamm votes the former, and thus ignores DeLorean’s hideous wastage of money, including the more than several millions that were skimmed right off the top. Indeed, Lamm ignores contrary evidence he himself introduces—that since 1963, Avanti, a remnant of the old Studebaker company, has successfully filled the very marketing niche that DeLorean aimed for.

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Lamm’s general tendency to make excuses for John DeLorean does give his book an extra dimension: it becomes the fossil evidence of DeLorean’s ability to charm the press. This, finally, is the story one would like to read. For if the final fault in this saga of chicanery lies with the “dreamer,” many were those in the media who happily reported and embellished the dream as it was unfolding, and who declined ample opportunity to look carefully into its foundations. Had these sandy underpinnings been noted earlier, the failure of the car company under DeLorean’s management would have been a foregone conclusion; more likely, the enterprise would never have existed at all, and we would thus have been spared the press’s belated and triumphant discovery of a scandal which the press itself had actively cooperated in promoting.

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