History, Modern, Nonfiction, UK

The DeLorean in Dunmurry

I’ve been wondering about the DeLorean for a couple of months because this space-aged car of stainless steel played a big (albeit brief) part in the recent history of Belfast. Several locals have mentioned it as important to the city’s psyche, part wound and part triumph.

Ron Cobb’s design for the movie car, a DeLorean converted into a time machine.

When Ron Cobb died last week, it seemed like a good time to investigate. Cobb had a hand in making many of the movies I loved growing up: Sleeping Beauty, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Alien, Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. A self-taught designer, he also drew cartoons and designed the ecology flag.  Judging by headlines to his obituaries, though, he is perhaps most famous for converting a DeLorean into a time-machine in Back to the Future.

The story of the DeLorean starts with an extremely charismatic figure in the American auto industry, John Z. DeLorean (1925-2005). In the early 1970’s, Delorean was on his way to becoming a top executive at General Motors. At 40 he’d already become their youngest division head and was known (among other things) for creating one of the most popular muscle cars of the time, the Pontiac Gran Turismo Omologato. He was also responsible for the new look Pontiac Gran Prix and the Chevrolet Vega. Thanks to his snazzy dressing, longish hair, beautiful wives and jet-setting ways, he gained a reputation for being a corporate maverick. As The New York Times put it in 1984:

“As the golden boy of General Motors, he wore long sideburns that violated the company’s unwritten dress code, chided his superiors, and , at the second of his three marriages, had as his best man the president of the Ford Motor Company at that time. He loved race cars, sculpted, owned a tenth of the San Diego Chargers, played a jazz saxophone and survived on four hours of sleep a night.”

John DeLorean and his wife of the time Cristine Ferrare

For some reason, he left General Motors in 1973, soon after being promoted. His story was that he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his working life in a rather stultifying atmosphere. On the other hand, some of the people in the company didn’t much like him so perhaps he was invited to leave. For whatever reason, he decided to go solo and formed the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC).

In 1974, DeLorean and DMC’s Chief Engineer Bill Collins went to the Turin Auto Show to scout designers. In the end, they went with Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro . The design they chose, the famous gull-winged, sharp-nosed sports car, was heavily based on the Tapiro, a 1970 concept car Giugiario had designed for Porsche.

The Tapiro

Receiving business loans from the Bank of America, from forming partnerships and seed capital from various celebrity friends, DeLorean looked around for somewhere to base his new company. Hoping for lucrative government investments, he searched the world for unlikely but promising places. Eventually he settled on Northern Ireland. The British Government, at that time a Labour Government led by James Callaghan, was keen to reduce violence in Northern Ireland (then in the throes of The Troubles) by reducing unemployment. They offered to pay $120 million of the company’s $200 million startup costs.  

Callaghan

In 1978, construction of the new factory began in The Cutts, an area between Republican Twinbrook and Unionist Dunmurry. The workforce would be drawn equally from both communities—each one having a separate gate. This area of West Belfast had the highest levels of unemployment in Europe at that time—about 50% of men were out of work. In fact, many of them had never worked at all. What’s more, violence was a constant fear. In 1978, the year the factory started being built, a PIRA bomb at Le Mons restaurant killed 11 civilians and an RUC officer and wounded thirty more. Kidnappings, shootings, bombs and riots were a depressing fact of life.

In his book The DeLorean Story: The Car, The People, The Scandal, Nick Sutton describes the excitement and hopefulness of local people for the project:

“In late 1978, in a magnificent splash of Technicolor and glamour, John DeLorean came to Belfast, complete with his entourage. The scene could have been lifted from a Hollywood blockbuster, his glamorous wife Cristina the leading lady. The main player in the drama was, of course, the magnificent stainless steel gull wing sports car, then just a photograph and a couple of prototypes. Most important of all was the pocketful of money John DeLorean had been given by the UK government to spend in the area. This had not gone unnoticed by the locals; the British government had finally done something sensible.

“Who could ask for more? The dream had landed. Everyone was going to work.

“And for a wonderful few years, they did.”

There is a some touching video footage from that time that shows DeLorean and the crew showcasing the first few cars for the benefit of the press and for the families of the workers. The excitement and pride among people interviewed is palpable. And DeLorean, who was 6’4, looms among them like a kindly giant, persuasive with his air of quiet confidence:

Reporter: Your super car, of course, is going to be a super dream for a lot of people who live in West Belfast. They really are placing an awful lot of hope in the DeLorean car, aren’t they?

DeLorean: Well I think it’s mutual. I think originally we came up here we were just businessmen doing a business deal. Now all of us have become so infected with the absolute mandatory requirement that this project be successful, that we’re really more interested in making it successful from the standpoint of the people than we are from any personal standpoint. And by God it’s going to be successful.

But it wasn’t.

Assembly lines only started in early 1981 after delays and budget overruns. There were some quality control issues that were costly to fix and the Delorean didn’t reach the consumer market until January 1981. By that time, the new car market had slumped due to the 1980 economic recession. The car itself attracted lukewarm reviews and by February 1982, more than half of the 7,000 DeLoreans produced remained unsold. DMC was US$175 million in debt and the Dunmurry factory was placed in receivership.

Margaret Thatcher and Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus cars, who was involved in developing the DeLorean

Margaret Thatcher, who’d been elected in 1979, had never been very impressed with the large government investment in DMC. Official files show that she was reluctant to provide the company with loans. In this television interview, DeLorean says that Thatcher’s government refused to honor a contract he’d drawn up previously with Callaghan’s government:

“We started the project under Roy Mason, who was the Secretary of State under the Labour government. When the Conservatives were elected, they decided not to honor the contract signed by Labour.… we never got the last part of the contract, which was 93 million under the working-capital clause and that put us out of business.”

Belfast workers with one of their cars

 

In 1981, the company failed to break even and in January 1982 the company was in dire straits. DeLorean lobbied the British government for aid but was refused unless he could find a matching amount from other investors. What happened next is something quite odd. As DeLorean went about seeking new investors, he became the target of an FBI sting operation in which federal agents and informants posed as bankers and wealthy investors. On October 19, an informant picked up at LAX, drove him to a hotel room and presented him with a suitcase full of cocaine before federal agents burst in on him and arrested him on charges of drug trafficking. That same day, the British government shut down the Dunmurry factor.

On October 2 1982, Ronald Reagan announced a bold new plan to combat drug abuse and trafficking.

After a long trial, a federal jury found him not guilty because of clear evidence that the government was trying to entrap him. Two years later, he was charged with fraud and tax evasion but also judged not guilty. Although the British government was convinced that he had embezzled millions of British taxpayer money for his personal use, they never got around to extraditing him. However, as Nick Sutton says, “In an act of unbelievable spite the UK sequestrated ₤990,000 from what they described as ‘surplus’ from the DeLorean Motor Cars Ltd pension for Belfast employees.”  

There are a couple of recent films about DeLorean. One is called Framing John Delorean  (2019) and the other is Driven (2018) starring Jason Sudeikis and Judy Greer and written by a Bangor-county native named Colin Bateman.

Alec Baldwin stars in Framing John DeLorean

As fascinating as DeLorean’s character is, though, as Nick Sutton says, “The losers in this saga….were not John DeLorean, who was declared bankrupt in 1999, or the management team, many of whom found other jobs. It was the 2,500 employees at Dunmurry. Many of them never worked again.”

Barrie Willis, who was director of purchasing at the Dunmurry plant, believes that there should be a museum or interactive center built in the city, similar to the one built for Titanic Belfast.

“The ship and the car were both failures but they were both glorious failures.

A cluster of doomed DeLoreans outside the Titanic Belfast

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