John DeLorean was undoubtedly a brilliant engineer. With a sense of style and flair, John proved to be an early model of the modern American visionary who stuck to his instincts even though the world seemed to be against him (think Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg). After creating the mother of all American muscle cars, the Pontiac GTO Firebird, John was welcomed by the Hollywood elite with open arms.
Yet, John was a bold con man who swindled all of his business partners out of money. John’s longtime defense attorney famously admitted that “John DeLorean had one of the most warped views of right and wrong” he had ever encountered.
So how did the once-loved engineer and cultural icon fall so far from grace? Let’s take a look.
John DeLorean was born on January 6, 1925 in Detroit, Michigan. His father, Zachary, was a Romanian immigrant who had trouble finding work because of his English. His mother, Kathryn, tried to help out financially by taking work whenever she could, but her husband’s erratic behavior made everyone’s life hard.
Zachary had violent outbursts and took his frustrations out on his family. During her husband’s more intense episodes, Kathryn took her sons to live with her sister in Los Angeles, California. They would sometimes stay for a year at a time. After John’s parents finally divorced in 1942, the future businessman barely saw his father, who became a drug addict living in a boarding home.
Despite his difficult upbringing, John excelled at school and colleges took notice. He received a scholarship to study at Lawrence Tech, a small college outside of Detroit known for producing some of the best engineers in the auto industry. But after a few years of studying, duty called.
John was drafted and sent to fight overseas in World War II, where he served for three years. When he returned stateside, he found his mother and brothers in a bad state. They were struggling financially and his mother barely had enough money to pay the bills. So John pushed off completing his degree for another year and a half to help his family out financially.
John finally finished his studies and eventually earned a Master’s in automotive engineering and later an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. After taking a few jobs that didn’t quite interest him, John officially started his automotive career in 1952 when he took a job at the Packard Motor Car Company.
Unlike other car companies that were making affordable cars for the middle class, Packard still focused on producing luxury vehicles that people could no longer afford after the war. While this hurt the company financially, it helped develop John’s attention to detail and flair. It didn’t take long for John to start making waves not just in the company, but in the industry as well.
After four years at Packard, John took a position as an engineer at the Pontiac division at General Motors. In the ‘50s, GM was the place to work. As one of the best automotive companies at the time, it was home to some of the greatest engineers of the period. But while the company as a whole was doing well, the Pontiac division struggled with its brand identity.
Young Americans suddenly became a huge consumer force in the automotive industry, and they didn’t connect with the brand. Pontiac seemed to make only stuffy cars for older adults, not sleek cars for kids in their early twenties. The division was “really in trouble,” author J. Patrick Wright wrote. “It was like an old person’s division. When DeLorean left, [Pontiac] had become the third-best nameplate in the auto industry, right behind Chevy and Ford.”
Most of the executives and engineers at GM were only interested in designing vehicles with a smooth ride, but John had another idea. He wanted to replace these boring models with something sportier, something that would be fast enough to impress American teenagers and young adults.
John had understood something about the industry that car executives had not yet grasped: style was just as important as nuts and bolts. “None of these guys were paying attention to the fashion side,” Wright said. So what was John’s solution? The Pontiac GTO. Named after the Ferrari 250 GTO, the GTO was the mother of all-American muscle cars. Finally, someone produced a car that embraced the youth culture’s need for speed.
The GTO was a huge success, and John received credit for everything from its concept design, to engineering and marketing. John became Pontiac’s golden boy and his reputation took flight well beyond Detroit’s city lines. He was rewarded with a promotion to head the entire Pontiac division in 1965 at only 40 years old. But his success started to get to his head.
Before the GTO, John’s lifestyle was almost a picture-perfect image of the GM executive. He kept his hair short and styled, wore three-piece suits, was married to the perfect girl, and attended stuffy social functions. But after the release of America’s first muscle car, all of that changed. John was no longer the hard-working husband who lived in a two-story house with a white picket fence.
John was now making money and living like a rock star. He started working out and wearing his shirts unbuttoned. Like many people who suddenly experience success and the fame that comes with it, John divorced his first wife, Elizabeth Higgins, in 1968 after 14 years of marriage. After his divorce, the Firebird creator began spending more time on the West Coast.
The Hollywood elite welcomed him into their circle with open arms. John was frequently seen with James Aubrey, the president of MGM studios, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. John also started dating models and actresses like Ursula Andress, Joey Heatherton, and Hollywood agent Tina Sinatra. This was a far cry from his upbringing back in Detroit.
John spent a great deal of time traveling around the world to promote the Pontiac division. His jet-setting lifestyle solidified his image as the “bad boy” corporate businessman. While the media loved him, other GM executives did not. This new version of John was very brash and tended not to listen to what they had to say.
Yet they continued to make money because he followed his own instincts. “The divisions were making money, and a lot of the profit ended up in the bonuses [of those executives] at the end of each year,” Wright noted. “They loved their bonuses.” This formed a sort of love-hate relationship between John and his fellow GM executives who grew to dislike him more and more.
In 1969, John married actress Kelly Harmon, the sister of NCIS actor Mark Harmon and the daughter of college football legend Tom Harmon. Kelly was only 20 years old, while John was 44. It was around this time that John had plastic surgery to enhance his jawline.
“The beginning of his problems is narcissism that’s grounded in a couple of things. One is plastic surgery, a level of manipulating your public persona that we identify with the Kardashians,” actor Alec Baldwin said in an interview with People magazine. Baldwin, who plays John in the Netflix biopic Framing John DeLorean, remarked that “John DeLorean was ahead of the curve doing that then, in order to make people believe about him what he needed them to believe.”
Even as GM’s overall revenue decreased, Pontiac continued to make money under John. Then in February 1969, John was promoted again, but this time to head GM’s prestigious Chevrolet division. Chevrolet, home of the Corvette and Camaro, was the company’s flagship marque, but it was experiencing some troubles.
The production of the 1970 Camaro was falling behind schedule, along with redesigns for the Corvette. The division was also trying to get back on its feet after the disastrous release of the Corvair, which was considered the most dangerous car on the market at the time. GM was in dire need of a new manager who could sort everything out, and they thought that John was their guy.
And, at first, John was their guy. He streamlined production, saved on assembly costs, and simplified modifications to new models. By 1971, Chevrolet was experiencing record sales. This was great for GM, but John’s personal life started to fall apart. He was working long hours in Detroit, which kept him from spending time with his wife and son, Zachary, whom they were planning to adopt.
The pair eventually divorced in the fall of 1972. During that same year, John was promoted again, this time as the vice president of car and truck production for the entire GM line. Newly divorced with a new professional title, John resumed his playboy lifestyle.
John started dating Hollywood starlets and “appeared in gossip tabloids as often as car magazines,” according to Paul Ingrassia, the former Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. “On Thursday nights he would commandeer a General Motors jet from Detroit to Los Angeles, where a GM junior executive would meet him with keys to a company car and hotel room in Beverly Hills or Bel-Air.”
“He would party through the weekend and fly back to Detroit Monday nights, showing up in the office on Tuesday morning. On Thursday nights, it was back out to Hollywood again.” GM executives didn’t care for John, but they tolerated his behavior because of the money he was making the company.
By now, John was making a solid $650,000 a year. As the VP of car and truck production, John’s eventual rise to president of GM seemed inevitable. But John’s climb up the corporate ladder rubbed people the wrong way. Not only did they dislike his flashy Hollywood lifestyle, but he also leapfrogged many other promising engineers, some of whom had been at the company for longer, according to Ingrassia.
However, this didn’t bother John. He went with his instincts, and for a while this worked for him. But then everything came to a crashing halt in the fall of 1972. John was set to speak in front of 700 executives at the tri-annual Greenbrier conference in West Virginia.
John drafted up a speech, criticizing the executives for putting bad products on the market, which John believed ultimately hurt GM’s bottom line. His staff thought that the speech was too critical, and they advised him to tone it down a bit, which he did. But a few days before the summit, a copy of the original speech was mysteriously leaked to The Detroit News.
Now everyone, supporters included, turned on John. This speech was the last straw for most GM executives, who could barely tolerate John to begin with. In April 1973, John announced his resignation from the company. But according to an article by The New York Times, rumors began to circulate that he had actually been fired.
The next month, John married his third wife, 23-year-old supermodel Christina Ferrare in a private ceremony in Los Angeles. The pair quickly set up house in New York with Christina co-adopting John’s son Zachary, whom he had adopted with his previous wife, Kelly, just a few months prior.
The pair later welcomed a daughter Kathryn in 1978. The family lived in a 20-room Fifth Avenue duplex that overlooked Central Park, according to Vogue magazine. John also started working on plans for his new business: The DeLorean Motor Company. Little did John know at the time that this marked the beginning of a long string of problems that would ultimately ruin his life and the lives of those around him forever.
The DeLorean Motor Company was officially established in October 1975. John’s plan was to build an “ethical car,” as he put it, that was long-lasting, safe, and sustainable. “He envisioned a car that would be the best of everything,” filmmaker Jordan Livingston said. “He wanted the best style, he wanted the [least] environmental impact, he wanted the best value for the customer, and he also wanted the best safety.”
Given John’s past successes, he had no problem finding the seed money for his new business venture. According to Forbes Magazine, John took a loan from the Bank of America and even turned to his celebrity friends, Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr., for additional investments. Needing even more money, John looked towards the government for development funds.
A 1978 article published by Business Week reported that John’s company was “flirting with Canada, Spain, Pennsylvania, Ohio and most recently his home town, Detroit.” But after striking an agreement with the US Department of Commerce to build a factory on a former Air Force base in Puerto Rico, John received an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
The British government gave him $100 million in government loans on the condition that he build his factory in Northern Ireland, right in the middle of the bloody conflict between the country’s Protestant and Catholic communities. John agreed and began building his factory on a cow pasture in Dunmurry, right outside of Belfast. With the British government’s investment and tens of millions of dollars from private investors, everything seemed to be set.
But all that money would disappear pretty quickly. “The biggest problem we had was that the first business plan that was developed once the project had come to Northern Ireland made it quite clear we’re going to run out of money the day we produced the first car,” Barrie Wills said in his book John Z, the Delorean, and Me: Tales from an Insider.
“We always knew that. And that’s why we were constantly under pressure to try and persuade the British government to give us just a bit more money. But that wasn’t forthcoming.” And then things started to get worse. Seven months after DMC broke ground in Belfast, Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of the UK. According to Wills, Thatcher frowned upon any government investments in private sectors.
The British government’s refusal to give DMC more money wasn’t the company’s only problem. In January 1981, the first cars were released. Critics loved how the car looked, but they were not impressed with its performance. It was underpowered and was neither groundbreakingly fuel-efficient nor safe, as John had previously promised.
In the end, only 9,000 cars were built and only 6,000 were sold to consumers, according to Forbes magazine. This outraged Thatcher, and she cut off further investments in DMC by placing the company on receivership. Even with the company falling apart at the seams, John assured DMC executives that the money was on its way. Little did they know that they would never see that money.
Since the DMC plant created so many jobs for the Irish, who were in the midst of a bloody conflict, many of the Irish factory workers looked up to John and believed everything that he said. “When John DeLorean came to [inspect the troops], it might as well have been George Clooney or Brad Pitt visiting the factory floor,” filmmaker Jordan Livingston said.
“Here was this rock star with a supermodel on his arm. People were absolutely starstruck.” Livingston also believes that the factory workers saw John as a savior of sorts and that he left an incredible stamp on the community. According to the filmmaker, working at DMC was not only these workers’ first job but the highest-paying job they’ve ever had.
According to Wills, a group of US investors was working on raising money for DMC and allegedly raised $10 million before the company declared bankruptcy. The money was sent to John on the last day before the company’s liquidation, but he never signed the papers because he already had a secret plan in place to get the money back.
Wills, who was the company’s CEO at the time, was just finishing dinner when he suddenly received a phone call from the British government telling him to close up the factory for good. Wills didn’t understand. He knew that the company wasn’t doing well, but he didn’t understand why the rush. Well, the next morning, everything became crystal clear.
When the DMC CEO turned on the BBC the following morning, he learned that John had been arrested in an FBI sting operation for allegedly agreeing to bankroll a drug deal of 220 pounds of narcotics that was worth $24 million. According to Forbes, John had hoped that this deal would make him enough cash to keep his dying company afloat.
That day, Wills had to face the DMC factory workers and break the news to them that they weren’t going to receive any money. In less than 24 hours, DMC workers went from being told by John (whom they adored) that money was on its way, to seeing him arrested on drug charges. “There were grown men in tears,” Wills said. A week after John’s arrest, DMC filed for bankruptcy.
On October 19, 1982, John was charged with trafficking narcotics, but there were many problems with the sting operation that led to his arrest. The US government was tipped off by a confidential informant, James Hoffman, John’s former neighbor. Hoffman told investigators that John had approached him about setting up a drug deal.
But during the trial, John’s lawyer, Howard Weitzman, denied those allegations. Weitzman said that it was the other way around and that Hoffman actually called John and suggested the deal. John’s lawyer believed that Hoffman, who was waiting for his own trial for drug trafficking, set up John in order to receive a lighter sentence.
The confidential informant also told investigators that he was aware of John’s financial troubles before contacting him. Hoffman had heard John say that he needed $17 million “in a hurry” to avoid his company’s imminent collapse. During the trial, Weitzman argued that the FBI knew that John would do almost anything to save his company, including bankrolling a drug deal.
After Hoffman set up John, undercover FBI agents then videotaped a sting operation in a hotel near LAX airport, where John agreed to put his company up as collateral because he didn’t have the cash upfront to finance the deal at the time. Weitzman argued that although John had intent to traffic drugs, they were never in his possession.
John’s lawyers argued the defense of police entrapment. They said that the FBI and DEA unfairly targeted an entrapped John by allowing Hoffman (an FBI informant who knew John casually) to randomly call John and convince him to take part in an illegal drug deal, just because he was desperate to save his company.
John’s defense lawyers also argued that John had no criminal record, while Hoffman was a career criminal who benefitted from getting John to incriminate himself on video. The final nail in the coffin was when John’s defense team called Carol Winkler to the stand. She was John’s administrative assistant and had records of all of John’s calls, including the one made by Hoffman. According to her records, Hoffman made the initial call.
It also appeared that John never intended to actually pay for the drug deal. This was just another one of John’s business deals that didn’t require him to put down a cent of his own money. When John said that he didn’t have enough cash to give the undercover FBI agents upfront, he agreed to put up his company as collateral.
But little did the government realize that John didn’t agree to give them control of DeLorean Motor Cars Limited or DeLorean Motor Company. Instead, he used DMC Inc., a dormant company that had no assets, according to Forbes magazine. So John was essentially conning conmen. He was also lucky that it was a fake deal. Who knows what an actual drug cartel would have done to him if they found about his little scam?
On August 16, 1984, after less than 30 hours of deliberation, the jury found John not guilty of all charges. But this wasn’t the end of John’s legal troubles. He faced multiple trials for fraud and embezzlement by US federal prosecutors and the British authorities, but he was never convicted. Accountants did, however, recover almost $100 million for DMC investors in civil court for the next two decades, according to Forbes magazine.
This drove John into bankruptcy, and he lost nearly everything including his family. Christina divorced him after he was convicted of drug trafficking, taking the couple’s two kids with her. “I lost all of my endorsements. No one would hire me,” Christina said in a 2019 interview with Vanity Fair magazine. “I was in a bad place, and I needed to get my children into a normal atmosphere.”
Christina also lost her friends, her savings (because of lawyer fees), and her modeling career. After John was arrested, Christina moved out of the family’s New York penthouse and into her parents’ house, where Christina says, they slept on mattresses on the floor.
The former model also said that she tried to shield her kids from criticism after her husband’s arrest. She even went so far as to call every parent in her daughter’s class to tell them, “You don’t have to be supportive of me or of John…but she’s a child. I’m asking you to speak to your child and be kind.” Despite her mother’s efforts, Kathryn was still heavily bullied in school by her classmates.
In 1999, John declared personal bankruptcy after fighting nearly 40 legal cases. He had lost all of his money and was living in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey with his fourth wife, Sally Baldwin, and their daughter, Sheila, who was born in 2002. John stayed out of the limelight until complications from a stroke led to his death in 2005 at 80 years old.
“He was so charismatic, so worldly, so smart, handsome. I was mesmerized by him. I fell deeply in love with him, and I remained so up until the end,” Christina said of her late ex-husband. “As much as I loved John and I know he loved me, he was emotionally unavailable.”