Originally published on June 28, 1999
I stood in a Northern Ireland pasture on a drizzly October day in 1978 as John DeLorean broke ground for his factory, never imagining that his sports car venture would end 20 years later with lawyers haggling over the amount of a lawsuit settlement.
After the groundbreaking ceremony, when earthmovers began pushing around the Irish hills, the DeLorean sports car seemed like a big idea that had a chance to succeed. After all, the British government was backing the project with $140 million.
I should have known better.
In May 1999, when lawyers for the trustee of the bankrupt DeLorean Motor Co., the British government and other creditors settled a lawsuit against auditor Arthur Andersen, it all ended.
Of course, the company had died in October 1982, at about the same time John DeLorean was arrested on drug charges in Los Angeles. By the time DeLorean was acquitted of the drug charges in 1984 - and of federal fraud charges in Detroit in 1986 - the sports car project was gone but not forgotten.
That's because since 1982, about 125 law firms rang up more than $30 million in fees during a steady stream of litigation and criminal trials flowing out of DeLorean's sports car project. The ultimate lawsuit against Arthur Andersen alleged that the company's auditor was lax and allowed about $17.65 million to be siphoned out of the project. It was the same missing money that led to DeLorean's trial in Detroit.
If nothing else, the sports car project should have earned John DeLorean a lifetime achievement award from the American Bar Association.
DeLorean's venture began not long after he left General Motors in 1973. DeLorean was a bright engineer who rose through the ranks quickly. After leaving GM's bosom, he recruited a cadre of talented car people and began raising money to build what he called an ethical sports car.
Before taking the British deal in Belfast, he spent three years shopping for taxpayer funding in cities such as Detroit and Allentown, Pa.; states such as Connecticut, Texas and Ohio; and offshore locations such as Spain, Ireland and Puerto Rico. He also sold stock to dealers and tapped some of his show business cronies such as Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Roy Clark, and other well-heeled investors, for research and development money.
As it turned out, DeLorean was better at raising money than building cars. The DeLorean, developed with the help of Lotus Cars, was too heavy, underpowered and overpriced by the time it went on sale in 1981. About 8,900 were built, and owners are still waiting for them to appreciate.
The one bright spot was the popularity of the stainless-steel car in its role as a time machine in the three Back to the Future movies.
The Belfast factory sat idle until French supplier Montupet occupied a portion of it to produce aluminum wheels and engine heads. The workers who hoped to build a better way of life for themselves slipped back into the mainstream of Belfast.
The good people who left other jobs to help DeLorean build his dream went their separate ways. Some built new careers, others retired.
Frederick Bushell, former finance man and CEO at Lotus, pleaded guilty to fraud charges in 1992 and served time in a Belfast prison for his role in misappropriating the missing $17.65 million.
And what of DeLorean? After his two acquittals, DeLorean settled into a less visible existence. When Bushell was tried in Belfast, the judge said DeLorean should have been on trial, too. Because he still could have faced charges in the United Kingdom, travel outside the United States was risky.
Every now and then DeLorean turned up in public at an event honoring his cars and told some naive reporter about his plan for another sports car. The new one would be made of plastic, have gull-wing doors and accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds - all for about $18,000.
Another big idea. But then DeLorean always had big ideas.
In the 1990s he wanted to develop his 400-acre estate in Bedminster, N.J., as a golf course community. Zoning officials said no. He later was evicted and declared personal bankruptcy in 1999.
Even in the middle of his sports car project, DeLorean had big plans (see box). None of those happened, either. Critics say those notions diverted DeLorean's attention just when the car company needed him.
Ultimately, the long, strange saga of John DeLorean's sports car ended not with a bang but with a whimper.