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Hands up if you remember John DeLorean.

If you do, you probably remember him for the stainless steel car with the flux capacitor from Back to the Future, and for being busted for $24 million worth of cocaine, giving a girlfriend a leather-bound portfolio featuring photographs of himself and being buried (when he was dead) in a black motorcycle jacket, blue jeans and a denim shirt with a pair of shades tucked into the zipper.

As with all larger-than-life characters it’s hard to know the truth about the immigrant boy from motor city. Nick Sutton was purchasing manager at the DeLorean factory in Belfast for the whole four years the company existed. In his excellent book The DeLorean Story, he suggests John DeLorean was set up for the coke bust by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, the FBI and his own greed.

One thing we do know for sure is that John, with two others at GM, invented the muscle car. The muscle car, next to pick-up trucks, remains the high-margin gold in the big three carmakers’ inventory.

In 1957, the American Automotive Manufacturers Association, in the manner of all do-gooder industry associations, tried to stop carmakers being involved in motor racing. “God forbid,” said the association board, “motor racing encourages young persons to drive their cars faster than they should.” In the early 1960s, General Motors not only banned the company from being involved in racing but also issued a directive telling engineers that the more power in the engine, the more weight in the body. This was meant to make the General’s cars so heavy they couldn’t go too quickly.

Keen to make his name, the chief engineer of GM’s Pontiac division, the self same DeLorean, found the ultimate loophole: make big engines an option. He let you slip a whopping V8 in the engine bay of a Tempest, where a six-cylinder nana engine used to be, for under $300 and renamed the beast the Pontiac GTO. (He borrowed the GTO name from Ferrari.) JD created a class of car that Americans, Australians and other sophisticated world citizens love with a burning passion.

Like John himself, the cars were mostly gloss with some substance. They looked quick but were slow. Often when you opened the gull-wing doors they stayed opened. For a long time. Today, prices of the 6000 DeLoreans left haven’t moved much in real terms. There was an Australian sale at $50,000 and the fair average range in the US is $12,000 to about $40,000. There are some very low mileage models selling around $50,000 with the occasional urger putting one on at $100,000.

Now while the Pontiac GTO was a huge success, if GM had let JD have his way, the carmaker could have killed the Lee Iacocca and Don Frey Ford Mustang. In 1964 Ford predicted the new sports car would sell 100,000 units. It did that in the first three months, and 15 months later had sold one million.


Read the conclusion at The Australian…

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