This article was first published in Fortune in September 1973.
Three years ago John Zachary DeLorean, then general manager of General Motors’ Chevrolet division, ordered members of his research staff to find him the world’s best-handling passenger car. They came back with two Mercedes, and DeLorean ordered his engineers to duplicate their suspension and steering characteristics for the 1973 model of Chevrolet’s medium-priced specialty car, the Monte Carlo. When the body of the Monte Carlo was restyled, DeLorean carefully avoided all frills, keeping it distinctively sleek and alive. This year the Monte Carlo is being acclaimed as one of the best-looking, easiest-to-handle cars Detroit has ever produced.
But last spring, while thousands of impatient customers were signing their names on waiting lists for the Monte Carlo, DeLorean was walking out of General Motors (GM). At forty-eight, he resigned from a job that paid more than $550,000 in salary and bonuses, ending a career that had seemed to point him toward the presidency of the world’s largest and most powerful manufacturing corporation. Instead, he plans to become a Cadillac dealer somewhere.
There is no question that DeLorean’s departure was a significant loss to the corporation. Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen, who served both G.M. and Ford in high capacities and is now chairman of White Motor Corp., considers him one of the smartest automobile engineers he knows. And Richard C. Gerstenberg, G.M.’s current chairman and chief executive, pays him this tribute: “He was highly regarded by his colleagues and by his dealers. He was good in marketing, too. That’s surprising, because he was an engineer, and you don’t always find the two going together,”
DeLorean had created three of the hottest cars to come out of Detroit since World War II. He holds well over 100 patents, and was responsible for dozens of design innovations. And as a manager, he had rescued Chevrolet from a downturn that bordered on catastrophe, a crisis that G.M. has successfully kept secret.
John Z. DeLorean,CEO, DeLorean Motor Co. After raising $200 million to build his gull-winged, stainless-steel-bodied sports car, DeLorean opened a factory in Northern Ireland where he discovered that raising money was easier than actually building cars. Cost overruns and slow sales sent DeLorean looking for more capital, which in turn made him the subject of an FBI sting operation. In 1982, he was charged with conspiring to smuggle $24 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. While he was eventually acquitted, his company collapsed, and DeLorean’s car is best-known today for its role in the Back to the Future movies.Photo: Central Press/Getty Images
In view of his achievements and seemingly brilliant future, DeLorean’s departure was not only a surprise, but a mystery. The industry has been buzzing with rumors ever since. Chairman Gerstenberg stands by G.M.’s original public announcement that the company was losing, with regret, a valued executive. There is not the slightest hint at corporate headquarters that DeLorean was fired or even that he left under a cloud. But that still leaves the question of why he chose to interrupt his career at such a momentous point.
His own stated reason is that he was sick of life at G.M. “The automobile industry has lost its masculinity,” he says. “Management’s not the same type as when I came here.” The substance of his complaint seems to be that encroaching government regulation has taken the fun out of the business, reducing it to the status of a utility, and that G.M.’s sheer size has led to mind-dulling bureaucratization, which left no room for an individualist like John DeLorean.
Taken at face value, this indictment would be a serious matter for General Motors, and, perhaps, for other large corporations. It would mean that General Motors, for all its wealth, was unable to hold onto a man of proved talents because the man decided General Motors was not good enough for him. But that explanation may be too simple to fit the actual facts and circumstances. DeLorean, after all, carried individualism to the extreme, and his superiors may not have been able to stomach much more of his abrasive qualities. Other men have traveled as fast a track at G.M. as DeLorean had, only to fall short of the chief executive’s office. DeLorean may well have surmised he was going no farther up the corporate ladder, and decided to get out before his ambitions were formally rebuffed. The whole truth may never clearly emerge; nevertheless, DeLorean’s last years at General Motors make a poignant tale of corporate life in America.
Lifting weights at Vic Tanny’s
Lanky, six-feet-four, with friendly blue eyes and a rich, commanding voice, DeLorean practiced the art of nonconformity at G.M. with an intemperance that was downright exuberant. Now that he is out, his daily uniform around Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is an open-necked sports shirt, faded blue denims, and a well-worn pair of black loafers. Proud of his physique to the point of vanity, he lifts weights at Vic Tanny’s three days a week. (“Those weights weighed 150 pounds when I posed for that picture [opposite]. I held them up for a half-hour.”) Shooting golf in the 70’s, he also rides motorcycles, is a tennis player and horseman, and is part owner of the San Diego Chargers and the New York Yankees. He dyes his hair coal black and keeps it impeccably styled, although touches of tattletale gray sometimes appear at the bottom of his sideburns. He travels in a glittering world of sports stars and movie makers—a group that is decidedly not General Motors. Although one divorce is now considered permissible at the company, DeLorean has been married three times, on the last two occasions to actress-models who were in their early twenties.
“A square fellow when I hired him”
The child of parents who separated, DeLorean spent half his boyhood in Los Angeles, his mother’s home, and half in Detroit, where his father was a set-up man in a Ford foundry. A gangly youth, he doesn’t remember winning any school-yard fights, but in other ways he soon developed an intense, almost uncontrollable drive to attain perfection. Something of a loner, he stuck to activities in which he excelled, giving up saxophone and clarinet lessons because he realized he would never be a great musician.
After getting an engineering degree at the Lawrence Institute of Technology in 1948, DeLorean went to work for Chrysler. It was an era when automobiles were seen as a glamorous product; schoolboys vied to win the Fisher Body Craftsman Guild design contest, and aspired as much to be president of G.M. as to be President of the U.S. DeLorean saw the business as an important calling, a way to give Americans mobility, and he still retains that view to some degree. He went to night school, earning a master’s degree in automotive engineering and another in business administration; he got half his credits for a law degree before he decided he was taking on too much. By 1952 he had grown restless at Chrysler. “It was too big for me to be noticed,” he says, and he switched to Packard. These were happy days. Because of Packard’s size, he was able to learn firsthand about a lot of different operations that he wouldn’t have been able to get into in a larger company. Four years later, when he was head of research and development, Bunkie Knudsen, then general manager of G.M.’s Pontiac division, offered him a similar post with Pontiac. “He was a pretty square fellow when I hired him,” says Knudsen. By then married to a secretary from northern Michigan, DeLorean wore his hair short, and his suits came off the rack. He smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day, and when he quit smoking his weight ballooned to a pudgy 230 pounds.
Knudsen was laboring to change Pontiac’s image from a little old lady’s car to a sleek racing machine, and DeLorean was soon supplying him with a new generation of “hot” Pontiac engines. In 1961, DeLorean became chief engineer, and four years later, at forty, the youngest general manager in Pontiac’s history. He was also named a vice president of the corporation.
Building on the momentum Knudsen had created, DeLorean led the division to its most successful year. A rock-music enthusiast, he developed a feeling for what young people wanted. “Automobiles are a fashion thing, like clothing,” he says. “And the people who set fashions are really the young people, people up to thirty-five.” He crafted his idea of what the young wanted into two fast specialty cars, the Firebird and the Grand Prix.
As a perfectionist would, DeLorean preached quality with the fervor of an evangelist hounding sinners. In an unused warehouse at the division’s home plant in Pontiac, Michigan, he set up an inspection line where every new car was checked to ensure that it was flawless. Pontiac became known as just about the best-engineered car in the business. DeLorean tightened the pressure on the dealers, and sales leaped from 688,000 in 1964 to 877,000 in 1968, a record that still stands. The Firebird and the Grand Prix accounted for half the increase.
After a triumph of this magnitude, one might think DeLorean would have been immeasurably happy. But he had begun to have misgivings. Back around 1960, Knudsen had taken him to a Pontiac dealers’ conference at the El Dorado Country Club in Palm Springs. The late Harlow Curtice, G.M.’s retired president and chief executive, was vacationing nearby and DeLorean met him at the festivities. A powerful executive, Curtice had run the company almost as a monarchy, and he had done so with spectacular success. “I looked at this guy almost as a god,” DeLorean recalls.
Talking with the club’s golf pro the next day, DeLorean mentioned Curtice. “That’s the loneliest human being who ever lived,” said the pro. “He comes into my golf shop for a couple of hours every day and talks to me and my assistant about the automobile business. We don’t know anything about the automobile business, but we listen to him. He just seems to want to talk so badly.”
DeLorean was shaken. Recounting the episode recently, he said, “You realized he never had been regarded as a human being, but only for his job.” Like many other G.M. executives, Curtice had devoted all his hours to The Corporation; his friendships were corporate, even his interests and knowledge were pretty much limited to the affairs of General Motors. Now that G.M. was in the hands of others, Curtice’s world had rolled away without him. “What is life all about?” DeLorean asked himself. “You work forty years, and what have you got?”
Was there a crash at Lime Rock?
As DeLorean climbed at General Motors and his annual income broke through the quarter-million mark, he gradually shed any attributes Bunkie Knudsen might have considered square. He was beginning to wear turtleneck sweaters and wide lapels, and he grew his hair long. Several years earlier he had dieted much of his fat away, cutting his weight to 195 pounds. Now he worked off the rest, trimming his frame to 170. As proud of that as he was of his management skills, he was quick to show off his lean torso. “I have a thirty-one-inch waist,” he would boast, pulling up his shirt and patting his well-tanned stomach muscles. Recalls Pierre Cossette, the Hollywood producer, who met DeLorean at about that time: “He looked like a million-dollar picture star … like he had been put together by the property department of M-G-M.”
Auto designer John Z. DeLorean (1925 – 2005) walking his dogs with his wife, Max Factor model Cristina Ferrare, and their son, Zachary. (Photo by Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)Photograph by Arthur Schatz — The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
When DeLorean’s fourteen-year marriage fell apart, he turned up at discotheques, escorting leggy actresses like Ursula Andress and Pam Austin (who had been playing the Dodge Rebellion Girl in TV commercials). In May, 1969, he married Kelly Harmon, the twenty-year-old daughter of Michigan’s famous Ail-American halfback Tom Harmon. He wrote a song to his bride, which a boys’ choir sang at the wedding.
DeLorean’s transformation stirred rumors to the effect that he had undergone a face-lift and the sideburns were there to hide the scars. He concedes the part about the sideburns, but insists that the scars resulted from an automobile accident in late 19681 According to his account, a friend of his who builds racing cars was having trouble with a suspension system he had designed. DeLorean offered to help diagnose the problem. While he was test-driving the racer at eighty miles an hour on a racetrack near Lime Rock, Connecticut, the suspension system threw the car out of control and off the track. DeLorean claims he was flung through the windshield and back in again; he was knocked unconscious, and was left with multiple head cuts. Because General Motors has a strict policy of forbidding its top executives to take such risks, he says, he kept the accident secret and immediately took a three-week vacation, hiding out in hospital rooms and a friend’s New York apartment while he mended. The story sounds plausible until you ask the man who owned the Lime Rock track at the time. He says he never heard of the accident, and to his knowledge, DeLorean has never even driven there.
“You travel like an oil sheik”
As his own life changed, DeLorean began questioning what he calls the cloistered life at G.M.’s upper levels. As he saw it, the senior officers spent most of their days confined to meetings on the fourteenth floor of the corporation’s headquarters in Detroit. Most executives worked ten-hour days, leaving for home around 7:00 P.M., lugging bulging briefcases. On Saturdays many reappeared in the office, this time in shirtsleeves, to put in a few more hours.
Most G.M. executives lived in Bloomfield Hills or neighboring Birmingham, where they socialized together. When they weren’t playing golf with suppliers or dealers, they frequently formed foursomes with one another at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club, because few made close friendships outside General Motors. While debate was allowed within the company, it was never to be aired in public, and since G.M. dominated the field, this meant there was little open self-criticism in the industry. Dinner conversations with G.M. executives, DeLorean felt, tended to concentrate on narrow interests—automobiles or finance or engineering—and to exclude such subjects as films or music.
DeLorean wondered if the kinds of friendships that developed around G.M. were really meaningful. In 1968, when Bunkie Knudsen left to become president of Ford, Knudsen became a nonperson at G.M.—despite the fact that his father had been a president of the company and Bunkie himself had built some lifelong associations there. DeLorean made a point of continuing his friendship with the Knudsens, and spent a lot of his time outside the G.M. community with people whose style of life blended with his own, men like Mark McCormack, the lawyer-agent for Arnold Palmer and other sports stars; Roger Penske, whose race car won the Indy 500 last year; and Robert Anderson, president of Rockwell International and a former back-fence neighbor (for more on Anderson, see the article on page 224).
In DeLorean’s view, even the way G.M. executives traveled seemed to separate them from the real world. “I don’t think the heads of state of many countries come close. You travel like an oil sheik.” He could point to the fact that any officer can fly in one of the corporation’s eighteen private planes (which cost $10 million a year to operate). When he lands, new cars whisk him and his retinue into town. If he is on his way to visit a dealership, two or three subordinates may drive ahead to assure all is in order. Before he arrives at his hotel, a public-relations man checks out his suite to make certain, among other things, that flowers are in place. A p.r. man once checked out the suite of John F. Gordon, who was president in the early Sixties, and noticed a suspicious-looking crusty substance on the sofa fabric. He ended the afternoon, handkerchief in hand, scraping at the sofa and wondering how such an assignment had befallen him.
If this was the way the executives traveled, DeLorean wondered, how could they understand the concerns of more common folk—concerns about maneuvering 4,000-pound cars through big-city traffic, or seeing over hoods that were six feet long, or saving gas, or having room in the trunk for all the family luggage. When a G.M. officer did drive himself to the airport in his company-supplied, $9,000 Cadillac. Eldorado, DeLorean noted, the trunk was not large enough to hold both his golf clubs and his luggage.
On January 25, 1969, a Saturday, DeLorean was summoned from the twelfth hole of Palm Springs’ Thunderbird Country Club by an urgent call from Roger Kyes, then vice president for the car-and-truck group and DeLorean’s boss. Kyes told him to catch the first plane back to Detroit and meet him at President Edward N. Cole’s house in Bloomfield Hills at eight o’clock the next morning. There Cole told DeLorean he wanted him to become general manager of Chevrolet.
Chevrolet was in trouble. As one G.M. executive describes it, using a metaphor that DeLorean himself is supposed to have coined, “You were looking at the Penn Central of the automobileindustry.” Chevy’s profits were falling, hundreds of dealers were losing money, and the division’s market share was shrinking, from 26 percent in 1965 to 22 percent in 1968. Yet Ford was retaining most of its share, even under the battering of imports. As one Chevy dealer says in retrospect: “G.M. got so conservative and so conscious of the corporate image that Ford was beating them with new products people wanted.”
Communications among some of the division’s major departments were erratic, primarily because each lived in a state of secluded autonomy. The marketing department had launched an ad campaign for the four-cylinder Nova with little warning to the manufacturing department, which had no chance to plan and had to go on overtime to meet the demand the ads generated. The division had twenty-five computers, and they had not been coordinated into an efficient system. When a new car was designed, its specifications had to be taken from the engineering department’s computer and reprogrammed into the manufacturing department’s computer. Things broke down altogether when the 1969 models were introduced; the computers failed to invoice hundreds of new cars.
All in all, DeLorean faced a staggering assignment: he was being asked to turn around what amounted to the world’s fifth-biggest industrial company. By FORTUNE’s estimate, the annual sales of Chevrolet total some $10 billion, about the same as the sales of General Electric.
The tyranny of the perfectionist
DeLorean visited plants and talked to supervisors and workers as he searched for the trouble spots. He met with the dealers, whose low morale had been driven even lower when the division’s sales manager told Automotive News, the industry‘s trade paper, that part of Chevy’s problem was too many fat-cat dealers. DeLorean answered their complaints realistically, avoiding pie-in-the-sky promises the dealers claimed they had received in the past. “He stimulated the dealers, and he gave them confidence,” one dealer recalls. “They loved him. From the second meeting we had with him, we’d give him a standing ovation when he walked into the room. He’d romance the dealers, but with facts, not b—s—!”
DeLorean fashioned his staff into a dedicated team. He would sit in his office, his feet on the desk, while questioning each new visitor incisively and answering an incessant barrage of telephone calls. He grasped one complex issue after another, as if he were performing a cerebral juggling act. “He wasn’t hanging over anybody’s, shoulder to keep an eye on them,” says Gerstenberg. He didn’t have to, for he cultivated his people, delegating authority and persuading them that his demands were really their own ideas. But he would brutally tyrannize anyone who didn’t measure up to his standards.
John DeLorean and Cristine Ferarre during The Balloon Ball at Pierre Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)Photograph by Ron Galella — WireImage/Getty Images
DeLorean put new fire into the marketing department. Upon discovering that new-car orders sometimes waited a month and a half before reaching the assembly line, he revamped the order-entry system. To put better merchandise in the dealers’ showrooms, he ordered new models, among them the 1973 Monte Carlo and a Vega with a rotary engine, which will go on sale next year. He insisted that his production people build cars that hold up. “This is part of your morality in the system of America,” he declared. “If you do less, it‘s immoral.” He says he even shut three plants for as much as two days because their cars did not pass inspection. The closings cost Chevrolet tens of thousands of dollars, but emphasized to managers and workmen that DeLorean wanted quality first and profits second.
The division’s slide stopped, and its market share leveled off at about 22 percent. Chevy’s profits continued to decline during 1969 and 1970, the latter year because of the long United Auto Workers strike. But they turned up in 1971 and have been growing ever since. Dealers’ profits before taxes have doubled since 1969 to more than $400 million in 1972.
“Not a growth industry anymore”
Despite his success at Chevy, DeLorean had a difficult time getting some of his ideas across to his superiors. As early as 1970 he foresaw that congested roads, the rising cost and consumption of gasoline, and government pressures for cleaner air would bring about a fundamental shift in the demand for automobiles in the U.S. He pointed out that if G.M. continued on course, it would be producing no cars in the range between 2,300 pounds, the weight of its subcompact Vega, and 3,200 pounds, the weight of its smallest compact, the Nova, and he predicted that market trends would favor cars in this range. Such vehicles were, of course, already being imported in growing numbers. Imports had increased their market share from 6 to more than 14 percent in five years, and DeLorean argued that the domestic industry would not be able to stop this trend unless G.M., as its leader, reduced the size of its intermediate and compact cars, and introduced small cars to the middle and luxury markets (to compete with such imports as the BMW, the Volvo, and the Mercedes). “The dollar imbalance is due largely to the failure of the auto companies to make small cars,” DeLorean charged. “The increase in the foreign-car population is a tremendous erosion of the American economic base. That’s why ourindustry is not a growth industry anymore.”
Independently of one another, DeLorean and Ed Cole both campaigned for smaller versions of Chevrolet’s compact car, which has grown in seven years from 2,700 pounds to nearly 3,200. Cole argued that the Nova had “lost its attractiveness.” Their solution was to design a car weighing some 2,800 pounds, about the same size as the large Toyota. DeLorean launched what he called the K-Project, to design 2,800-pound versions not only of the Nova but also of the Camaro, Chevy’s small specialty car, and the Pontiac Ventura. But the K-Project died because it had no support from his immediate superiors. Within the past year, Olds and Buick have in fact entered the compact field with the Omega and the Apollo—but these weighed in at 3,300 pounds. Now, Cole says, there is no way to come out with a smaller compact before the late 1970’s.
To DeLorean, that rebuff was symptomatic of the degree to which G.M.’s senior managers were out of touch with the marketplace. “If you wanted to make it two feet shorter, no one would let you, they’d be so frightened,” DeLorean complained. “There’s no forward response at General Motors to what the public wants today. It‘s gotten to be a total insulation from the realities of the world. From the standpoint of America it‘s frightening.”
Failure to introduce more small cars hurt the company’s position in the market—although with record profits of $1.6 billion for the first half of 1973, Chairman Gerstenberg doesn’t appear overly concerned. American compacts and subcompacts—along with imported cars—have accounted for close to half of the U.S. car sales this year, and their share is still climbing. General Motors, which produces about 45 percent of the cars sold in the U.S., is manufacturing only 37 percent of the U.S.-made compacts and subcompacts. Ford is only a few notches behind, producing 32 percent of the small cars, though it has only 25 percent of the auto market as a whole. And despite the dollar devaluation, imports have continued their inroads, raising their share of the total market to well over 15 percent. (A small irony is that, while the debate was raging more than a year ago, General Motors’ engineers bought a Datsun 240-Z sports car for routine examination. Demand for the model was so strong that Datsun had a five-month waiting list, and G.M. had to pay $600 extra to get the car early.)
No golf next Thursday
While absorbed in trying to bring Chevrolet under control, DeLorean was beginning to have problems at home. He was on the road much of the time and worked long hours when he was back in Detroit. He never seemed able to spend enough time with Kelly and the son they were adopting. DeLorean even woke the baby at 6:00 A.M., so that he could see him for a few minutes before he left for work. The social life he had embarked upon between marriages had evaporated. Kelly was younger than some of the daughters of other G.M. officers, and feeling out of place in Detroit society, she grew homesick for southern California. To spend more time with her, DeLorean had given up golf, but that didn’t help much. He and Kelly separated in the fall of 1972, and they were divorced last February.
To be sure, DeLorean earned more in a year than many people do in their lifetimes. But he was discovering that neither the money nor the position could guarantee happiness. Some dealers he knew, including one of his three brothers, were making as much as he and giving a lot less of themselves to the job. “I make $600,000 a year,” he once told a Chevrolet dealer in Illinois. “But I can’t play golf next Thursday and you can.”
Toward the end of 1970, DeLorean heard that a franchise for a new Cadillac dealership might soon become available in California. The franchise not only would bring in a hefty income, it also would entitle DeLorean to collect his bonuses, which G.M. pays out over five years and would not normally pay if he severed his connections with the company. (His back bonuses total more than $800,000.) DeLorean went to Thomas A. Murphy, then a corporate vice president and his immediate superior, and told him he wanted to resign and take the dealership. As DeLorean recalls the conversation, Murphy replied: “Jesus! I don’t see why you want to leave. Nine chances out of ten, when Cole leaves you’ll be the next president.”
UNITED STATES – OCTOBER 17: 1967 Pontiac Firebird. Pontiac Director John Delorean poses with the new Pontiac Firebird convertible. (Photo by Don MacDonald/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images)Photograph by Don MacDonald — The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images
Murphy, who is now vice chairman (and is expected to become chairman when Gerstenberg retires), emphatically denies having made the statement, and DeLorean insists with equal vigor that he did. It is natural for a superior to try to hold a good man by describing his future in rosy terms, but the statement DeLorean attributes to Murphy would mean that DeLorean was favored for the presidency over two of his seniors—Elliott M. Estes and Richard L. Terrell. Whatever Murphy actually said, it is clear that he and Gerstenberg eventually dissuaded DeLorean from leaving. Nevertheless, DeLorean remained restless and reiterated his feelings to Murphy a half dozen times in the next two years.
Like putting Secretariat in a straitjacket
Last October, DeLorean was promoted to corporate vice president for the car-and-truck group, which accounts for about a quarter of G.M.’s operations. He moved onto the fourteenth floor, where he worked with other senior officials, attending meetings of the many committees that make the decisions at the top. Such a post might be viewed as the place where G.M. puts the final trim on its future presidents. But the change was too much for DeLorean. As one friend, a dealer, says: “That’s like putting a straitjacket on Secretariat.”
As general manager of a car division, DeLorean had been the center of attention, enjoying a large measure of autonomy. Fourteenth-floor executives like to tell about a Pontiac general manager who, when promoted to the corporate level, joked that he had commanded 14,000 men at Pontiac but now was in charge of only a secretary. The change was more dramatic for DeLorean; at Chevrolet he had directed 100,000 men and women. He also felt that he had known what was going on inside the Chevy division and could make his decisions there intelligently. But he found that a group executive, who oversees the division managers, is cut off from sources of information. The committee system so annoyed him that, if a particular meeting seemed to him unimportant, he deliberately stayed away, to the irritation of his superiors.
“You were getting all your input from lower-level specialists,” he says. “They provided information in such a way that they would get the answer they wanted. I know, I used to be down below and do it. The feeling I started to get, being suddenly put on the fourteenth floor, was that now I was being presented with information that had limited alternatives. This is totally inconsistent with any thoughtful and creative originality. You never could reflect on and modify a proposal. You couldn’t be a planner. You were too harassed and oppressed by committee meetings and paperwork—you just had tons of it. You were cut off from the outside world. You saw only the men on the fourteenth floor. The corporate hierarchy was just reacting to the demands of the organization and responding to some degree to the government and the public. It was like standing in the boiler room and tending a machine and you were just watching it instead of running it.”
As high up in the corporation as he was, DeLorean continued to have trouble getting his views across. About three months after his arrival on the fourteenth floor, he proposed that General Motors save what he claimed would amount to $1 billion annually by making a number of changes. If the company made its restyling decisions earlier, he argued, it could reduce overtime and retooling costs, and if it followed the Ford example of making model changes overnight and during weekends, it could cut plant closings to a minimum. Last year G.M., which produces twice as many cars as Ford, recorded ten times as many plant downdays. But DeLorean’s seniors decided that his proposals would not save any money; Gerstenberg says the company uses plant downdays to catch up on painting and other maintenance.
“A guy who is giving his life’s blood”
Perhaps the most controversial issue DeLorean got embroiled in was what position G.M. should take on federal emission standards, and whether it should request a year’s extension of the 1975 deadline set by Congress. By last fall, when DeLorean got into the debate, G.M. had finished extensive lab and proving-ground tests on catalytic converters, which management sensed might meet the standards. In November the first thirteen large, converter-fitted Oldsmobiles, of a fleet of 250 prototype cars, were sent to the California Air Resources Board for field testing. By February each car had rolled up as much as 5,000 miles, and the converters were proving successful.
According to sources within the company, what bothered DeLorean was that General Motors, despite these harbingers of success, was arguing for the year’s delay because it did not know for sure that the converters would meet the standards completely. DeLorean contended that instead of asking for the delay, the company should take a more positive and realistic stand and announce that it was willing to try to meet the existing standards—even if it could not guarantee 100 percent success—by equipping the 1975 cars with the new converters. Because he was getting nowhere with a lot of his arguments, he became dejected: “When this happens to a guy who recognizes what ought to be done, and who is giving his life’s blood and can’t get it done, then hell, he ought to go on and do something else.”
The longer he inhabited the fourteenth floor, the more DeLorean realized that the rewards he had believed would lie at the top, the immense power and sense of fulfillment, simply were not there. Suppose he did one day become president, what would it mean? Cole was a man who knew the product and its market, yet as president, Cole often seemed to be powerless. Cole had also urged that G.M. be more aggressive in small cars, but lost. DeLorean finally concluded that what he regarded as Cole’s predicament would be his own.
In March he told Murphy he wanted a Cadillac franchise that was opening in Florida. Murphy, Gerstenberg, and others tried to dissuade him, but this time they did not push very hard. “After awhile you begin to wonder whether you’re wasting his time and ours,” says Gerstenberg.
Still searching for glamour
On April 18, the day his resignation was announced, DeLorean moved out of the General Motors Building. For a year, at Gerstenberg’s urging, he will be president of the National Alliance of Businessmen, a group of corporate executives that promotes such causes as the hiring of minorities and Vietnam veterans. This will give him ample opportunity to work for something he believes in while he sets up his dealership. There is some doubt whether he will get the agency he seeks in Florida. The established Cadillac dealers in the area, apparently fearing the competition, are opposing his request for the necessary state license.
Looking back at what he left, DeLorean reflects: “I’m sure, the guys on the fourteenth floor feel they’re contributing all there is to contribute. But I’m best at taking a weak business and making it strong. That’s a unique gift. There aren’t too many guys who do that. I think I should be making that contribution. I’ll probably end up eventually running some other business in the U.S. I could be pretty happy running a company, but I don’t think I could be happy being part of a committee structure.”
DeLorean doesn’t yet really know what kind of company he’d want to run, but it must be something with glamour and potential, something like what he imagined the auto industry would be when he entered it back in 1948. Meanwhile General Motors rolls on. “It‘s got momentum,” says a Chevrolet dealer. “But General Motors is under fire today. It needs the human element. They’re losing a lot in John DeLorean.”