How John DeLorean Took Us Back to the Future




THE TALL, good-looking guy had it all — wealth, fame, style, success, a fashion-model wife. I was just a reporter covering his trial. Each morning, trekking downtown to the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse, I joined my colleagues of the press, confronting the awesome enigma of John DeLorean, the “maverick automaker,” in the full-blown wreck of his rags-to-riches high-rolling career, accused of trafficking 100 kilos of cocaine, a charge of which he was ultimately acquitted.

Three decades later, as the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future is marked with frequent allusions to the iconic DeLorean automobile that served as the movie’s time machine, I look back on the four-and-a-half months I spent covering John DeLorean’s trial with an uneasy feeling. By the time the story I wrote on assignment landed on my editor’s desk, the trial was over, the media had moved on, and my article never appeared. DeLorean is dead now, never recovering his loss of fame and fortune. I’m still a journalist, trying to figure things out. At least I got paid.

But still, what was the truth about all that fuss in the spring and summer of 1984? An American tragedy played out in the headlines, a 59-year-old man reaching for a dream — did he just pay the inevitable dues for challenging the existing order? Sealed in a courtroom verdict, truth often unravels in hindsight.

Tattered, coffee-stained courtroom notes — my own equivalent of the flux capacitor (the power source for the movie’s time machine) — transport me back to the morning of the trial’s opening day, April 18, 1984 … a mild 61 degrees at 9 a.m. in downtown Los Angeles. Ronald Reagan is president, a gallon of gas is $1.10, Kenny Loggins is singing “Footloose” on the radio, and a ticket to the movies is $2.50.

The man with the steel-gray hair and cosmetically shaped chin sitting beside his attorneys at the defense table is John Zachary DeLorean, former vice president of General Motors. Detroit-born son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants whose alcoholic father worked in the Ford auto factory and mother did the best she could. English sparsely spoken at home. “You don’t know what poor is until you know how poor we were,” he told biographers Ivan Fallon and James Srodes in Dreammaker: The Rise and Fall of John Z. Delorean. He grew up on the Detroit streets, studied engineering, a wunderkind going on to become General Motors’s youngest division manager, the man behind the Pontiac GTO, Firebird — muscle cars tearing up the nation’s new fabric of highways, American power roaring at its apogee.

It was partly DeLorean’s Hollywood hippie lifestyle — shaggy hair and dates with Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress — that earned him his “maverick” moniker. He was, according to one auto industry observer, “perhaps the ultimate fantasy figure for every underpaid automotive hack or working-class car nut in America.”

Where he clashed with the auto industry’s conservative corporate establishment was in his sleek, singular vision, infused with overtones of the 1960s social revolution, of sporty wheels for the masses — an “ethical” sports car, DeLorean called it: compact, efficient, safe, and affordable. It was a challenge to Detroit, which had lost leadership on all these points.

DeLorean said he was “firing” General Motors when he quit as GM’s head of North American operations in 1973, although GM insiders say he was on the verge of being fired. Striking out on his own, DeLorean reached for immortality, like Henry Ford, putting his name on a car of his own design.

First unveiled at an auto show in New Orleans in 1977, the exterior of his visionary coupé was executed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Italian designer was capable of producing a people’s car, such as the Volkswagen Golf, but was better known for shaping Maseratis and Lamborghinis. The stainless steel, gull-winged DMC-12 prototype was a horny spin on “ethical,” more like a Playboy centerfold for car freaks, targeting the testosterone-fueled Chevy Corvette crowd seeking street-racing perfection.

The vehicle that first rolled off the production line in 1981, however, was flawed. The brushed-steel body scratched easily, showing every oily hand and fingerprint. The rear-mounted Renault V6 engine departed from the original drive-train design by GTO engineer Billy Collins, seriously compromising the sports car’s performance. “It’s not a barn burner,” reported Road & Track. And the DMC-12 cost $10,000 more than a Corvette. The US economy was slumping, and DMC sales struggled — only 9,000 cars were made before production ended in early 1983.

Now, a year later, with DMC bankrupt, the factory in Northern Ireland in receivership, and thousands laid off, DeLorean is facing more than 60 years in prison. Still, the 59-year-old defendant is a rich man, an owner of the San Diego Chargers and the New York Yankees, with friends like Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson. Ford president Lee Iacocca served as best man at his second wedding. His wife, Cristina Ferrare, the former Max Factor girl, sitting beside him each day with their young son, is a fixture in the fashion pages; his high-priced attorneys, Howard Weitzman and Donald Re, hold daily press conferences on the courthouse steps. Even as US Attorney James Walsh reads the charges against DeLorean — conspiracy, possession, distribution of cocaine, interstate travel for felonious purposes, nine counts in all — the subject in the pressroom is the designer of Ferrare’s dress.

Walsh outlines the chronology of events beginning with a June 2, 1982, phone conversation between DeLorean and a former neighbor-turned-government-informer, James Timothy Hoffman, proceeding to a series of secretly recorded phone calls between DeLorean and undercover DEA and FBI agents, and leading to surveillance video tapes that ultimately “caught John DeLorean,” Walsh says, “in the act of being himself.”

DeLorean sits quietly listening to the case being made against him. From tidbits gleaned from his legal team, we learn that on the way back from court they stop at Mo Better Burgers on the corner of Fairfax and Olympic for lunch. The man with the bankrupt car company and astronomical legal costs is on a junk food budget — and his wife says he has found Jesus and they’ve both become born again. Beyond those meager facts, he remains a mystery. And strangely, from the moment the trial begins, DeLorean seems to quietly shrink and, over the course of the trial, almost disappear.

We quickly overdosed on the plethora of transcripts and constant drone of replayed tape recordings with DeLorean’s deep, Midwestern voice talking about the imminent seizure by the British government of his failing car company. Listening to him discussing money laundering in vague language pertaining to a vague deal in which he was to put up two million dollars and some get 20 times that in return — given the massive numbers, it should be exciting, but it is like listening to paint dry.

In one recording echoing in the courtroom DeLorean tells a man named James Benedict, supposedly a crooked banker working out of Eureka Savings & Loan in San Carlos, California, that he can’t hold up his end of the deal. The two million needed to buy the cocaine belongs to the Irish Republican Army and they’ve handed the money over to the British government to help save DeLorean’s Belfast factory.

“So what do you want me to do,” says Benedict on the tape, “kill this deal?”

“I don’t see any alternative,” DeLorean replies, “unless you’ve got some other idea … all I can do is try to develop an alternative, and if I can, I’ll leave word at your office.”

The press corps is nodding off as another recorded phone conversation plays — DeLorean agreeing to put up stock and an inventory of DeLorean cars as collateral to keep the deal alive. A promissory note listing 40 vehicle ID numbers and a stock certificate for 1,000 shares of DeLorean Motor Company, FedExed to Benedict on September 29, 1982, are entered as evidence. Assistant US Attorney Robert Perry continues his direct examination of Benedict, who is actually FBI Agent Benedict Tisa.

Perry’s annoyingly nasal voice chases me and my colleagues back to the pressroom where we lounge over cigarettes and coffee, half-listening to Perry leading the FBI’s undercover agent forward on the audio feed.

Suddenly the date October 19 is mentioned and the TV monitors switched on. The press corps streams back into the courtroom. The audience is transfixed — judge, jury, clerks, reporters, lawyers, the accused and his family and the crowd in the public seats — by the infamous “Bust Tape,” excerpts from which world has seen over and over on the evening news.

Even as a rerun, the drama is still fascinating in its almost scripted quality as it plays out in its entirety …

Scene: Night — Sheraton La Reina Hotel near LAX, room 501

John DeLorean, “James Benedict,” and informant James Hoffman, a man called Vicenza, all seated on a white couch. Vicenza places a suitcase on the coffee table. He cracks it open to reveal white bags of cocaine. Hoffman hands DeLorean a kilo. DeLorean hefts the bag.

DeLorean (laughs)

It’s better than gold. Gold weighs more than that, for God’s sake.

Benedict offers a champagne toast, pouring glasses of Moët all around.

The Hitchcockian thrill in the courtroom is undeniable: knowing what the on-screen character does not know — he’s trapped! Sure enough …

Door bursts open, a man in a suit steps into the room.

Man In Suit

I’m Jerry West with the FBI. You’re under arrest.

Perry says, “No further questions, your honor.” No further questions seem possible. DeLorean is cooked.

Howard Weitzman steps up to the podium and, after a pause, shuffling some papers, looks up and says to the FBI agent on the stand, “You caught the big one, didn’tcha?”

“Objection!” cries Perry.

Weitzman shoves forward, firing a quick round of questions, gaining high ground with four points: no money had ever changed hands in the alleged dope deal; the stock and collateral DeLorean signed over were not only worthless, but the government knew they were worthless; the FBI’s key informant Hoffman is an admitted perjurer; and the government’s key witness, FBI Agent Tisa, is being doggedly evasive.

“Will you please look at me and answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ sir!” says Weitzman again and again, making the work “sir” the equivalent of “shithead.”

Ferrare whispers audibly, “Give it to him, Howard. Give it to him,” while the jury sits straight up in their seats and reporters grin at the attorney’s taut performance. In minutes, the situation in the courtroom has flip-flopped: DeLorean is no longer the defendant. Now the government is on trial.

Three days later, toward noon on a Friday after a long week, FBI Agent Tisa is still on the stand and pissed off. He’s already made headlines by admitting he’d destroyed his original log of the investigation, earning an acid rebuke from Walsh, overheard with glee in the pressroom. Now Weitzman is pressing him on a conversation that he, posing as James Benedict, had with DeLorean concerning phony stock options, tax benefits, employment records, all to conceal the money-laundering scheme pivotal to the proposed dope deal.

“You came up with this all by yourself,” says Weitzman.

“What do you mean all by my myself?” Tisa says.

“Did John DeLorean ever suggest these things himself?”

“No.”

“You initiated the conversation about dope, not John DeLorean, didn’t you, sir?”

“I —”

“Didn’t you!”

“Yes.”

“You’re doggone right,” snaps Weitzman.

The judge calls a recess. Weitzman actually receives applause from the public seats.

“Later that afternoon,” Weitzman grills Tisa further. “Did you really believe,” says Weitzman, winking over at the press section, “that the IRA and the British government were partners on behalf of John DeLorean?”

Everyone laughs. FBI agents have already testified that they found no connection between DeLorean and the IRA, and it’s clear that the desperate carmaker had pathetically — preposterously! — invoked the militant group’s name as a bluff.

When Weitzman is finished, he has established that the US government introduced DeLorean to the notion of saving his car company through a dope deal, and that the man, essentially broke and feeling too threatened to back out, was unable to follow through with the deal — yet, they’d pursued him anyway.

Strangely, we could see US Attorney Walsh and his team begin emulating the wealth and style of the man they were pursuing. Walsh started wearing sharper suits, his gray hair styled in a hipper length, like DeLorean’s. As DeLorean’s family appeared each day, so did Walsh’s wife and children take seats on the opposite side of the courtroom. From the testimony it was clear that from the beginning of their investigation to the climactic day they stood concealed in the next room of the Sheraton La Reina Hotel, ordering lavish room service meals and telling each other, “This will get us the cover of Time!” they were seduced by the free-wheeling DeLorean. These federal employees, stuck on a treadmill of salary grades and a life in service to a pallid bureaucracy were staying in the same hotels, jet-setting around the country on expense accounts in hot pursuit, hatching massive, risky deals — to an eerie point where one had to ask: hadn’t they switched identities?

In the end, as the jury concluded, the dope dealer in question was not DeLorean. How could he be, if the money to make the dope deal was Uncle Sam’s, along with the dope?

One could say that DeLorean shared with his prosecutors and their Washington bosses a tragic trajectory of hubris. The trial marked one of the earliest tests of government guidelines issued by the attorney general in 1981 for undercover operations following the ABSCAM scandals of the late 1970s. DeLorean’s victory was the first acquittal of a defendant on the grounds of entrapment after hearings on the issue by the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, which had issued a report four months earlier in an attempt to curtail undercover police abuses. Today, government misconduct is a daily headline, from police shootings to massive invasions of privacy under the cover of the Patriot Act. With antiterrorist agencies seeking out potential jihadists by tracking pro-ISIS sympathizers on Facebook and luring them into bomb plots, the same questions of overreaching and entrapment are more urgent than ever.

On a personal level, DeLorean’s acquittal turned out to be hollow victory. Following the trial, DeLorean lost everything, including his wife. Within a year, Cristina Ferrare, daughter of an Italian butcher in Cleveland, married ABC-TV executive Tony Thomopoulos, Bronx-born son of Greek immigrants. They did all right — Ferrare as itinerant TV host, Thomopoulos as one of the industry’s ubiquitous execs, bouncing from job to job until the Hollywood trades no longer took notice.

DeLorean’s tragedy was not his alone. The automobile industry in which he’d risen to such heights, and which powered the postwar US economy for so many years, lost world dominance to its own incompetence and overseas competition. His hometown, the city of Detroit, was a burnt-out shell. Deserted by the white beneficiaries of the auto industry’s economic blessings, the municipality’s tax base went to the suburbs with them, and Detroit’s first- and second-generation black migrants, who’d fled persecution elsewhere for their own piece of the American Dream, faced a broken Motor City and 25 percent unemployment. For these outcomes, there is enough blame to go around, but DeLorean did his small part by locating the factory to build his dream car in another country.

What saved the maverick automaker from utter destitution and ignominy was pure Hollywood. The licensing deal for DeLorean DMC-12 used in Back to the Future helped keep the car’s namesake afloat.

“John DeLorean wrote us a fan letter after the movie came out” the movie’s co-screenwriter Bob Gale recalls. “‘Thank you for keeping my dream alive.’”

Before his death in 2005, DeLorean was forced to sell his rolling 434-acre New Jersey estate, which today entertains wealthy duffers as the Trump (yes, that Trump) National Golf Club, “a bastion of sophistication and luxury,” according to Links Magazine.

The heroic strivings of DeLorean’s generation, sons and daughters of European immigrant waves washing ashore in the first half of the American Century, have somehow come to this: a greatly diminished Detroit and a fancy golf course owned by a man who wants to run the United States like a private golf club.

If we can learn anything by going into the past — or from movies about going into the past — a clue may be found in Doc Brown’s answer when Marty McFly asks why he chose the DeLorean — a flop automobile, a failed business venture — as his time-traveling vehicle: “The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

It was 100 percent all-American style, built on ephemeral good looks, swaggering engines, a headlong rush to escape honest origins at the expense of fundamental ethics, burning fossil fuels down the road, the accused and his accuser in pursuit of a dream — back to a future where truth, we always hope, will one day be faced.

¤

Rex Weiner’s articles have been published in Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, The New Yorker, New York Observer, LA Weekly, The Paris Review, and Rolling Stone Italia.

 

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