John Z. DeLorean rose high in the ranks of General Motors, but he was never a General Motors man.
He was a contradiction. John DeLorean was a swinger. General Motors, maybe you've noticed, does not swing.
He enjoyed the good life, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Hence one of his nicknames, "Hollywood John." Other GM executives of his era were more likely to curl up with Forbes or The Wall Street Journal or, I hope, Automotive News in the evening.
Would he have become president of GM? We'll examine that interesting proposition soon.
DeLorean burst into prominence at GM as the junior member of the Knudsen-Estes-DeLorean team that saved Pontiac. That is not an exaggeration. Pontiac was one sick puppy when they took over in 1956 - Bunkie Knudsen as general manager, Pete Estes (from Oldsmobile) as chief engineer and DeLorean (from Packard) who would become assistant chief engineer.
They launched Wide Track; they put a distinctive split grille on all Pontiacs; and they pioneered the muscle-car era with the GTO, a Pontiac Tempest coupe with a monster 389-cubic-inch V-8. The GTO was the baby of DeLorean and Jim Wangers, a champion drag racer turned adman.
Along the way, there were promotions. Knudsen went to Chevrolet and then to Ford Motor Co. as president; Estes succeeded Knudsen at Pontiac and Chevrolet and then became president of GM. DeLorean was named Pontiac general manager at age 40 and Chevy chief four years later.
When he left GM in 1973, DeLorean was group vice president in charge of the car and truck divisions. Few jobs at GM are more important than that.
But would he have become president? I doubt it. He had the smarts, but the lifestyle of the forty-something DeLorean was a bit too much for many of the mossbacks on the GM board of directors.
In 1969, having divorced his first wife, DeLorean, 44, married actress and model Kelly Harmon, then 20. John was making and selling 2½ million Chevrolets a year, but to the public, he was the "nobody" in that match.
Kelly and Cristina
Kelly's father was Tom Harmon, sportscaster, war hero and University of Michigan football immortal; her mother was actress Elyse Knox; her brother was hunky actor Mark Harmon; and her sister was married to popular singer Ricky Nelson, who was the son of Ozzie and Harriet. John and Kelly were divorced in 1973, and he married actress/model Cristina Ferrare, 22.
As the 1970s began, another young star emerged on the GM horizon.
He was John Beltz, who became Oldsmobile general manager in 1969, at 43.
Beltz was just as smart and just as capable as DeLorean. But, unlike DeLorean, Beltz was GM to the core. Although Beltz contracted cancer and died in May 1972 at age 46, his death knocked GM's line of succession out of whack.
A year later DeLorean was gone, too.
Since 1973, DeLorean's name hasn't been spoken much in GM's inner circles. But his achievements at Pontiac and Chevrolet are bright spots in the corporation's history. He was a brilliant engineer who became an outstanding sales and marketing executive as well.
He met staid, stodgy GM on his own terms. He didn't defeat the system, but he was never cowed by it. As Old Blue Eyes used to croon, he did it his way.