John DeLorean found out that he had been picked to run Chevrolet when he was about to hit his tee shot on the 12th hole at the Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif.
In the book On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors by J. Patrick Wright, DeLorean told how on Saturday, Feb. 1, 1969, he was summoned to the phone in the middle of a round of golf to talk to his boss, Roger Kyes, vice president of the car-and-truck group. Kyes gave him the news and ordered him to get on a plane back to Detroit immediately.
When many Americans think of John DeLorean, they think of the Back to the Future movies that featured his stainless steel car; or the cover of Time magazine from November 1982, soon after his arrest on drug trafficking charges; or perhaps his glory days at Pontiac.
After his successful campaign as the head of Pontiac, which included launching the muscle car era with the Pontiac GTO, DeLorean's stint as general manager of Chevrolet may have seemed almost anticlimatic. But DeLorean made some of his most significant contributions during his brief stay at Chevrolet, which lasted until Oct. 1, 1972, when he was promoted to vice president in charge of all car and truck production at GM -- ironically, the position that Kyes, his old nemesis, had held before leaving GM for another job.
By the time DeLorean got the phone call on the golf course, he already was butting heads with Kyes on a regular basis and challenging GM's gray-flannel culture wherever and whenever possible.
The 44-year-old DeLorean, more than many of his GM contemporaries, reflected the changing pop culture and fashions of the 1960s. An unpopular war in Vietnam fostered a new willingness to question authority. Hair got longer, music got louder, dress became less traditional. DeLorean dated starlets, turned up in the gossip columns and wore double-breasted blazers in the three-piece-suit world that was GM.
For a while, the corporate higher-ups tolerated what they considered DeLorean's quirkiness because he was making Chevy hum.
Record sales mark
Four decades ago, the general manager of a GM vehicle division had vast power, with responsibility for marketing, sales, advertising and public relations -- even with operating the manufacturing and assembly plants.
As general manager of Chevrolet -- then the country's best-selling brand, which sold one of every four cars in America -- DeLorean was in many ways the head of the biggest automaker.
It was an awesome job.
When DeLorean arrived, the division was mired in inefficiency, in part because it had grown so much after World War II.
In Clear Day, DeLorean takes credit for streamlining Chevrolet's management structures, strengthening financial controls, rationalizing design, revamping manufacturing, rebuilding engineering accountability, improving quality control, adding flair to the division's product plans, plus inspiring vitality in the division's marketing and sales operations.
DeLorean also inherited the Vega program, which needed final development work before its scheduled 1970 launch. The Lordstown, Ohio, factory, which was converted from truck output to build the Vega as part of the new General Motors Assembly Division, was a source of nagging labor trouble during the changeover and ramp-up.
The 67-day national strike by the UAW in 1970 shut down GM just as Chevrolet was in launch mode for the Vega, adding a degree of difficulty.
But through it all, DeLorean kept plugging.
Of course, he didn't do it alone. He had support from GM's corporate staff, which handled key areas such as financing and labor relations. He also had several highly qualified subordinates who helped make the division successful.
His leadership culminated in sales of more than 3 million Chevrolet cars and light trucks in the United States in 1972, which DeLorean liked to remind everyone was the first time an individual manufacturer had reached that mark.
DeLorean was a car guy. But while head of Chevrolet he began to hobnob with the Hollywood set, professional athletes and others outside the industry.
Back in Detroit, DeLorean disregarded company policy. Former colleagues have said that he squandered money on a prototype of a Chevrolet limousine because he wanted to ride around in one, and that he spent twice the allowable budget to decorate his office and then had his finance man try, without success, to hide it from GM's auditors.
An investment newsletter, the Gallagher Report, said in 1972 that GM CEO Richard Gerstenberg had appointed a committee to investigate widespread reports of supplier kickbacks at Chevrolet. No public word on the matter ever came from GM.
Emboldened by his own success, DeLorean began to criticize GM's stodgy nature and practices openly. It was increasingly apparent that even his engineering prowess and the minor miracle he had performed at Chevrolet couldn't offset the growing dissatisfaction with DeLorean. He left GM in 1973.
Years later he collaborated with Wright on the Clear Day book, which is filled with DeLorean's observations about what was wrong with GM and how he tried to fix them. Just before the book was to be published in 1979, DeLorean got cold feet, afraid that the publicity would damage his fledgling car company.
So Wright published it himself.
When some of DeLorean's old colleagues read the book, they scratched their heads. In their memories, DeLorean had engaged in many of the ideas and practices he had criticized.
Robert Dewey, a Chevrolet financial executive when DeLorean was Chevy's general manager, later worked for DeLorean's sports car venture and knew him as well as anyone else. He said DeLorean was much like the GM executives that he claimed to disdain.
Dewey, who died in 2003, had said when the book was published that it baffled him. "It seems like every other page I would pick something out and think, 'How can this bother you, John? This is you.'"
Despite the personality traits that almost certainly led to his premature departure from GM -- and his post-GM misadventures in Los Angeles, New York, Belfast and elsewhere -- John DeLorean remains a car guy/folk hero for his devotion to product.
In Clear Day, DeLorean told of his frustration at being unable to persuade GM's brass to let him develop and produce quality small cars that could have challenged the growing tide of imports from Europe and Japan.
The Vega project that perplexed DeLorean should have been a lesson about how not to build small cars in North America. But it took decades for the message to sink in.
The lack of good small cars was something that Chevrolet -- and General Motors -- sorely missed when the first OPEC oil embargo rocked the U.S. auto industry and staggered the American economy in October 1973, just a year after DeLorean left Chevrolet.