Below the surface, always something
Edward Lapham is the executive editor of Automotive News.
Sometimes it was about the auto industry. But other times it was about the economy or politics or a starlet he used to date ... or even about a business professor at the University of Michigan whom DeLorean said influenced the car business because a lot of top auto execs took his course as part of a popular M.B.A. program.
In the dozens of conversations I had with him during the years he was starting, operating or trying to save his stainless-steel sports car project, DeLorean was never boring. It was part of his charm that John DeLorean knew about — and cared about — issues outside the car business, you know, bigger things.
DeLorean was one of the brightest auto execs I've known. And for a while it seemed as if he would be another of the entrepreneurial giants who could create a vehicle, a market niche and a motor company in his own image.
That was heady stuff for a young reporter covering the great man and his wondrous enterprise.
But I caught on. When you scratched below the surface, there were too many documents detailing questionable deals and too many similar dark stories from people who were or had been close associates.
Occasionally, DeLorean showed callousness about the human condition. During a mid-April 1982 interview in his Manhattan office, he tried to make a little joke about the unseasonable 20 inches of snow that had fallen the day before.
"There is one thing it does, though, which is desirable," DeLorean said. "The bums have all started coming back, so of course the next morning they go into the park and there are these 80 frozen bums. They load them up like logs and cart them away. It sort of gets the place cleaned up for a while."
When his car company was imploding, I saw another disappointing side of the brilliant engineer. He was unable to accept any responsibility for the project's failure, except to say that in his kind-hearted naivete he had hired the wrong people and kept them around too long.
DeLorean found plenty of reasons to blame others for his failures. He said British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government wanted him to fail because it had been a Labour government that gave him financial backing. General Motors wanted to punish him on general principle, DeLorean said. He was adamant that the Reagan administration didn't like him because of his progressive social views.
And, eventually, he grew frustrated with the media when he stopped getting the unquestioning star treatment that he had been receiving since his days at Pontiac.
I should have seen that last one coming.
On the overcast day in October 1978 when DeLorean broke ground for his factory in Dunmurray, Northern Ireland, he and his wife at the time, Cristina Ferrare, were treated almost like royalty because he was creating jobs near impoverished Belfast.
A BBC-TV crew and famed independent documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker filmed the goings-on. I was the only American reporter there, and I scurried back and forth trying to find out the financial details from government officials and DeLorean.
It didn't take long for DeLorean to become irritated. "You really like to get your nose up under the tent, don't you?" he sniffed over the top of his champagne flute.
I didn't realize it then, but it was the defining moment of our relationship.
You can reach Edward Lapham at email@example.com.