How the Playboy Inventor of the DeLorean Crashed and Burned
The new Netflix docuseries ‘Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean’ explores how the inventor of the ‘Back to the Future’-mobile lost himself in a smog of cocaine, greed, and scandal.
“If you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) states about his era-hopping DeLorean in Back to the Future, thus cementing that vehicle’s place in the American pop-culture imagination. It was certainly easy to see why director Robert Zemeckis chose the car for Doc and Marty’s sci-fi ride—with two gull-wing doors that suggested it might be able to fly, and a body made out of stainless steel, the DeLorean looked like something out of the 21st century. The irony, however, was that by the time that 1985 movie blockbuster arrived in theaters, the DeLorean was already a thing of the past—a notorious failure that had crashed and burned thanks to the headline-grabbing scandals of its inventor.
Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean delves into the rise and fall of the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC), which was founded by its namesake John DeLorean, an automotive industry superstar aiming to revolutionize the business that had brought him fortune and fame. Directed by Mike Connolly, it’s a sharp and insightful portrait of ambition, greed and desperation, told through new interviews, archival news stories, and non-fiction footage shot by Oscar-winning duo D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) and Chris Hegedus for their 1981 documentary DeLorean. In three concise and expertly assembled episodes, it captures a multifaceted sense of its subject, a social and political moment in time, and the way in which pioneering titans are sometimes made and destroyed by the same impulses.
Premiering July 30, Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean eschews straightforward chronology in recounting the flashy life of DeLorean, who grew up in Detroit with an alcoholic immigrant father who worked at Ford. According to author Gail Sheehy, who interviewed him for her book Passages (about midlife crises), DeLorean’s desire to not wind up like his dad was apparently amplified by a childhood visit to a friend’s mansion—as well as by his formidable intellect, which was so great that his early automotive designs were plastered around his school for all to admiringly see. DeLorean was a uniquely talented engineer, and he proved that upon arriving at General Motors, where—sensing an opportunity to capitalize on a 1960s youth culture that loved fast cars but couldn’t afford them—he developed the Pontiac GTO, to rousing success.
A relatively cheap muscle car that could tear up the street, the GTO illustrated that DeLorean had his finger on the pulse, and the car’s record sales netted him the position of group executive in charge of GM’s entire North American car and truck operations (which accounted for 92 percent of GM’s total profitability). This made DeLorean a household name, and compelled him to seek additional celebrity in Hollywood, where he was known as a ladies man who hobnobbed with the rich and famous. An outgoing, debonair figure who oozed confidence and charm, DeLorean was a hit in whatever circles he moved, and in 1973, he married model Cristina Ferrare, creating a power couple that was considered the epitome of elegance and style. As one person says in Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean, “The word charisma was almost invented for John.”
Just as he’d recognized and seized a counterculture opportunity with the Pontiac GTO, DeLorean viewed the 1970s energy crisis as a pivotal chance to satiate mounting demands for energy-efficient American cars. Consequently, he conceived the DeLorean, which ran on little gasoline and was constructed out of rust-proof steel. Plus, its gull-wing doors were cooler than anything found on a rival foreign or domestic vehicle. Buzz was instantaneous and intense. What was less immediate, however, was capital to fund production of the car, meaning DeLorean had to work tirelessly as pitchman for his creation. After securing what he claimed were 30,000 orders from American dealers, he hit the jackpot when he convinced the Northern Ireland government to build him a plant in Belfast—welcome news to locals, who viewed DeLorean’s arrival as a godsend that would alleviate their crushing unemployment.
The problem, unfortunately, was that Belfast was in the middle of a brutal Protestant-Catholic conflict, and worse, DeLorean ran out of money at an alarming rate. When, after many hiccups, the car finally hit the streets in January 1981, it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. And then, on October 19, 1982, catastrophe struck. Strapped for cash, DeLorean was arrested in an FBI sting in a Sheraton hotel room while making a $4.5 million cocaine deal—presumably to help keep DMC afloat. A high-profile criminal trial ensued, and though he was eventually acquitted, the FBI sting footage presented by Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean suggests that he got off less because he was innocent—or because this was a definitive case of entrapment—than because, quite simply, he was John DeLorean.
Yet despite avoiding jail, DeLorean was from that point on a ruined man. Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean shrewdly flip-flops between his past and present to locate the root causes of his strengths and weaknesses, the former driving him to be a true innovator with dreams of changing the world—and helping others along the way—and the latter leading him to not only dabble in drugs to financially support his business, but to allegedly embezzle millions in order to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Director Connolly reveals DeLorean to have been a figure of contradictions, such that he was genuine about both helping Belfast’s working-class population rise out of poverty, and fattening his wallet at the expense of the very company he sought to turn into an industry game-changer.
Employing copious film and audio interviews with DeLorean (as well as Cristina, biographers, reporters and Hegedus), Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean shines an intimate spotlight on the genius, locating the grandness of his intertwined aspirations and shortcomings. What emerges is the story of a great opportunity that, thanks to arrogance and avarice, ended in wreckage for all involved, including DeLorean’s son Zach, who now remarks about the car that brought his family such notorious turmoil, “I see it and I just wish I had, like, a fucking hand grenade and just toss it in the thing.”