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John DeLorean went from rags to riches and back again but left a legacy

The high-powered executive who retired in disgrace is best remembered as the man behind the DMC-12, better known as the Back to the Future time machine.

John DeLorean promotes the DMC-12 in London in 1981. Keystone / Getty
John DeLorean promotes the DMC-12 in London in 1981. Keystone / Getty

John Zachary DeLorean's rags-to-riches-to-rags story reads like the script of a Hollywood thriller. From humble beginnings, he became the Golden Boy of Detroit, rising to fame with effortless speed and swarthy swagger, his Midas touch transforming the fortunes of General Motors and leaving a lasting legacy to its marques. But, like all good thrillers, there was to be a twist. Groomed for the GM presidency, he gave it all up to glorify his own name. The result was one of the biggest flops in motoring history, time travel at 88mph and a bitterly contested court battle that rocked the British government, made the FBI blush and left DeLorean bankrupt.

DeLorean was born into a poor Romanian-Austrian family in Detroit. His father was a union organiser for Ford but earned little and spent most of what he had on drinking heavily. As with other immigrants chasing the American dream, DeLorean sought to raise his family's fortunes through drive and talent. He earned a scholarship to the Cass Technical High School, following in the footsteps of many an illustrious motor magnate, and went on to win a place at the Chrysler Institute for Engineering. After a three-year conscription to the US military, he returned to complete his degree and work at Chrysler. But a pay rise soon lured him to Pontiac, where he soon made his name with a number of innovative patents.

The next decade saw the young DeLorean's career flower. With his Pontiac GTO, the brand successfully repositioned itself to a younger market and profits soared. He was so highly regarded that, at the age of 40, he took charge of Pontiac, the youngest-ever divisional head in GM. But he did not fit the mould for a corporate executive, wearing trendy clothes and adopting a casual, offhand demeanour. This saw him gain a reputation as a maverick, albeit one blessed with genius. He soon won promotion to Chevrolet where he reversed the fortunes of the company blighted by quality control issues.

By his mid-40s, he was commanding a salary of around US$500,000 and had become something of a celebrity, investing in baseball teams and courting A-list friends such as Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Junior. When he was promoted once more to vice-president of GM, it seemed inevitable that the top job was his. But then, in 1973 at the age of 48, he handed in his resignation, saying he wanted more time for his social life.

But just a few years later he founded his own company and debuted designs for the brushed stainless-steel, gull-winged sports car, the DMC-12. It was a very ambitious and very expensive project in partnership with Lotus and Renault. Having secured a six-figure deal with the British government to assemble the cars in unemployment-stricken Northern Ireland, production was delayed by two years due to an almost farcical catalogue of delays and overspends. In the end, the model didn't match its promise, providing the performance of a mid-size saloon for the price of a supercar. Around 9,000 were made before production ceased in 1982.

In an attempt to salvage his company, DeLorean sought investors, one of whom was an informer to the CIA who lured him into a cocaine trafficking scam. Though DeLorean delayed payment and only agreed to go through with the deal allegedly because his daughter's life was threatened, he was arrested. What followed was one of the highest profile industrial court cases of all time. Though he successfully pleaded innocence due to entrapment, the CIA having effectively contrived a "fictitious crime", his reputation was in tatters and his legal fees weighed like a millstone round his neck. Even after being cleared, he still fought 40 law cases simultaneously as he tried to extricate himself from the DMC debacle.

The whole saga had a profound effect on him and he sought solace in religion, becoming a born-again Christian.

But the DMC-12 wasn't destined to be forgotten; in fact, it would gain immortality in 1985 when it became Doc Brown's time-travelling machine for the Back to the Future film franchise. DeLorean personally wrote to Bob Gale, one of the producers of the film, thanking him for using the car.

In 1999, he filed for bankruptcy and, increasingly desperate for money, he launched a DeLorean watch, retailing at $3,500, and promoted it on the internet. He promised each buyer a place on the waiting list for a new DMC model. Neither the watch nor the new model were ever produced.

DeLorean died in 2005 in New Jersey at the age of 80.