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The DeLorean From 'Back To The Future' Has An Even Crazier Real-Life History Than We Imagined

Updated September 23, 2021 19k views14 items

It's an iconic car, the DeLorean, made famous by its fundamental role in the Back to the Future movies - but do you know the man behind the car? Do you know the John DeLorean story?

The DeLorean's namesake, John DeLorean, lived a life so intriguing that it's now the subject of two major movies. Framing John DeLorean, featuring Alec Baldwin, was released in July 2019, a mashup of documentary footage and reenactments of DeLorean's extraordinary path. A month later brought the arrival of Driven starring Jason Sudeikis and Lee Pace and detailing DeLorean's exhaustive - albeit questionable - quest to make the innovative, ethical sports car

Two movies may not be enough to fully encapsulate all the ups and downs of John DeLorean's life - or how far he was willing to go to get the DeLorean made. He's been called many things - engineer, playboy, car maker, conman, risk-taker - and, in truth, he may have been all of the above.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    DeLorean Set Out To Start His Own Company And Make The Small, Sylish, Fuel-Efficient Cars That GM Was Against

    In DeLorean's words, GM "had a moral responsibility to build smaller cars, especially in GM's case as America's major supplier of transportation equipment... We had a responsibility to do that - whether it was profitable or not. And what happened is that we didn't, and we left those cars to overseas."

    Where GM failed, DeLorean was determined to step in. DeLorean founded an automobile company, aptly named the DeLorean Motor Company, in 1975. By 1977, DeLorean, assisted by former collaborator at GM, William "Bill" Collins, and Italian designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro (of Alfa Romeo fame), had created an "ethical" sports car. Collins was soon replaced by Colin Chapman, engineer and founder of Lotus Motors in the UK.

    The DMC-12 was supposed to weigh less than all other sports cars - only 2,200 pounds - and get far better gas mileage. It had numerous features, including wing-like doors  - to "add sex appeal" - and, despite a smaller engine, could go from "0 to 60 mph. in less than eight seconds." According to DeLorean, the car would be made in a factory absent "spray booths and paint ovens" to protect employees from "[finding] out 20 years from now they have some funny lung disease."

  • The UK Government Offered DeLorean $100+ Million In Investment Capital, So He Built His Factory Outside Belfast - In The Thick Of The Troubles

    John DeLorean hadn't been lacking for support, enlisting private investors like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr., and he took out a significant loan to support his efforts. As he shopped for government funds, he reportedly pitted supporters against each other, "flirting with Canada, Spain, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and... Detroit."

    When it came time to put the DMC-12 into production, DeLorean opted to take the UK up on its offer for financial backing. Despite having made an agreement with the United States to develop a factory in Puerto Rico, DeLorean reneged and opted to build his factory near Belfast in Northern Ireland.

    In exchange for bringing 2,500 jobs to the region, which was deeply entangled in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants at the time, DeLorean received $77 million from the UK. The agreement was reached in 1978; with additional private investment money, loans, and grants, the factory pushed out the first DMC-12s three years later.

  • Photo: Wilson Adams / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    The Factory Had Separate Entrances For Catholic And Protestant Employees

    The site of the DeLorean factory was near Belfast, a location called Dunmurry, and it opened squarely in the middle of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. DeLorean feared conflict would break out among the workers, so he established separate entrances for Catholics and Protestants.

    From the perspective of residents, the different entrances weren't entirely the result of religious differences. Barrie Willis, former supplies director at the factory and eventual CEO, explained:

    It was misleading: the Catholic population lived on Twinbrook, and the Protestant population lived on Seymour Hill estate, on the other side of the railway line. So they came from different directions. Hence the two gates.

    DeLorean was concerned about his own safety and any actions taken by the Irish Republican Army, especially in light of the kidnapping and slaying of Thomas Niedermayer in 1973. Niedermayer had been the manager of the German Grundig electronics factory near the Dunmurry site.

    One additional concern for DeLorean was upsetting the spiritual order of the region. Fairy trees, located throughout the countryside, are to be honored and showed respect. They shouldn't be touched, trimmed, or cut down, but during the construction of DeLorean's factory, at least one fairy tree was said to have been upended by contractors.

  • DeLorean Tried To Manipulate The Media, Evoking The Name Of Rupert Murdoch 

    One of the main stories that exposed DeLorean's inappropriate financial dealings was written by John Lisners. A freelance journalist, Lisners started investigating DeLorean after the car manufacturer himself contacted him. DeLorean, via his assistant Marian Gibson, asked Lisners to reach out to a journalist in the United States who had written a critical account of his time at General Motors. DeLorean offered Lisners £25,000 plus expenses to get the reporter to New York so he could be served legal notice to bar publication of the book. Lisners declined and found his interest in DeLorean acutely piqued.

    Lisners went on to meet with Eddy Koopman, a mutual friend of DeLorean's, who told him about the engineer's excessive spending. Lisners also stayed in touch with Gibson, who contacted him in 1981 and had him come to New York, ready to provide an exclusive story. Gibson laid out the details of how DeLorean was hoping to restructure his company - taking it public - a move that would negatively affect his investors and the British government alike.

    Lisners had the story of a lifetime, one he tried to sell to several London-based newspapers. By that time, media mogul Rupert Murdoch controlled four major national papers, including the London Times. Lisners contacted the newly appointed editor at the Times, Barry Askew, who was enthusiastic about the story. Askew took the story to Murdoch.

    As Lisners waited for his story to go to print, he contacted DeLorean for comment. DeLorean told him, "John, you're never going to get this story published." Why? Lisners asked. "I know who you are and where you are from and you will not get it published because I am a friend of Rupert Murdoch."

    DeLorean was right - Murdoch shut down the story, sending Lisners to the Daily Mirror. While the Mirror gladly published Lisners's work, the journalist was soon banned from all of Murdoch's publication outlets.