Framing DeLorean: A Review


John Zachary DeLorean’s now historic tale has three bullet points, fraud, embezzlement, and an embarrassing cocaine bust. Those of us who knew next to nothing about the story, prior to watching Framing DeLorean, knew John DeLorean built a “car of the future” that few, outside the producers of the movie Back to the Future purchased. We read those “Metoric Rise and Dramatic fall” magazine articles. We heard that story on late-night talk shows, and we repeated the jokes that dropped from it, “The DMC DeLorean looks great … from the outside. If you’re on the inside though, you’re probably not going to think that, because you might not be able to get out of it.” Bottom line, we thought, the main character depicted in the now historic tale of John DeLorean was a bad guy, on par with Oliver Stone’s bad guy Gordon Gecko. After watching Framing DeLorean, the viewer finds that it’s a lot more complicated than all that. We see an ambitious, talented man who got so caught up in the tent poles of glory and fame that he ended up kicking them all down around him to bring the tent down on himself? We find ourselves asking the questions was the DMC DeLorean a fraud perpetuated on the public, or did its engineer/CEO fear what others might think of him so much that he allegedly engaged in fraudulent activity to try to prevent others from seeing him for who he really is? Even if he wasn’t what they suspected?

No one cares, you say, because law enforcement officials believed he engaged in fraud, and they they gathered enough evidence to successfully indict him on those charges. They also arrested DeLorean after a sting operation, in which they caught him, on tape, taking part in proposal to sell cocaine. A jury found him not guilty in both cases, but no one cares. The charges, alone, damaged his legacy beyond repair. He became a laughing stock, and that was the end of the story as far as we were concerned. As detailed in the documentary Framing DeLorean, the full story is so much more complicated than that. The first two-thirds of the movie, depicts an ambitious, talented man chasing an impossible dream, and the final portions detail what happened when that dream wasn’t realized as flawlessly as the genius thought it should’ve been.  

No one in the film disputes the notion that John DeLorean was an ingenious and wildly successful engineer. After succeeding beyond his dreams as an engineer at General Motors (GM), DeLorean could’ve landed just about any job he wanted in the automotive industry. He decided, instead, to leave the security of his job at GM to pursue the impossible dream of beating the Big Three in the automotive industry at their own game. He also left behind the structure that he had at GM (and by the end of the film, some viewers might say this is key), and the system of checks and balances GM exerted on his designs. The final portions of the documentary cover what happens to a dream, when that man hits a series of roadblocks, and he is not as capable as those in the foundational structure at GM would’ve been at solving them.

When DeLorean left a secure job at GM, he took a team of talented, some say brilliant, people with him. Those brilliant minds thought DeLorean was such a brilliant mind that they left their own secure jobs to set about trying to make history with him. Private investors considered him such a genius that they scrambled to gather whatever funds they could find to back whatever project John DeLorean chose to pursue. He also received $140 million, in public funds, from Great Britain for the work he proposed to do in Northern Ireland, and he had the sentiments of the entire country of Northern Ireland behind him. A majority of Northern Ireland residents still consider John DeLorean a hero for everything he did to revive the economy of their then war-torn country. The employees he hired in Northern Ireland considered working for DeLorean a “dream job”. All conditions remaining constant, those workers probably would’ve worked for DeLorean for the next twenty to thirty years. DeLorean also had what many considered a brilliant engineer, named Bill Collins, follow him from GM to the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). Collins was purported to be the kind of genius who could make all of John DeLorean’s dreams come true, and he could augment some of the particulars of DeLorean’s dreams to make the DMC DeLorean a top performer.

Even with all that behind him, we learn that the talking heads interviewed for the documentary considered DeLorean’s dream improbable. During that era, becoming a car manufacturer was near impossible, they said. The Big Three, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had the market seized. No person, in their right mind, would attempt to go it alone, they said. Against everyone’s advice, John DeLorean tried it, and he nearly did it. He nearly accomplished the impossible dream. 

To accomplish such an impossible dream, one has to have an unusual amount of confidence, and John DeLorean obviously did … in the beginning. When he experienced some roadblocks, and the talking heads in the documentary suggest that most of these roadblocks were manageable, DeLorean’s unusual level of confidence began to waver. Did he begin to see the impossible dream for what it was? 

How many people love to play “poke the genius” in scenarios such as these? “He’s a genius, you say? Did you know that once you close those beautiful gull-wing doors, you can’t get out?” “Did you know that critics suggest that the performance and power of the car are not as advertised? Genius you say? I say piffle.” Americans say that Americans love to build someone up only tear them down, but how many of us truly adore genius? We might use the ingenious products of Apple, for example, but we prefer to gripe about its relatively insignificant flaws.   

How many people tell us that our dreams are unrealistic? How many of us can weather those storms no matter what hurdles cross our path? How many of us truly believe we can accomplish that dream? How many of us eventually find ourselves beat down by all of the naysayers telling us that our dreams are unrealistic?

When the DeLorean DMC finally, after eight years, hit the market, it hit a major roadblock. People weren’t buying the car. The car hit the market during a recession, and few were buying brand new cars, and critics began slamming the car for a variety of reasons, including the idea that it didn’t test well.

“All John DeLorean had to do, at this point, was halt production of the car and fix the errors [exposed in the tests],” one of the talking heads said in the documentary.

Those words probably haunted John DeLorean for the rest of his life. For a litany of reasons that might forecast the actions of John DeLorean, he didn’t halt production. This is the pivotal part of the story, and I’m quite sure this is the point where the cynical among us begin sniffing out the fraud. Why didn’t he just halt production? It might have cost him millions to do so, but those of us who know the end result know that this would prove the ultimate downfall of the DMC DeLorean car. This gap in the story line requires explanation, and when we don’t receive it, we fill it in. When we fill it in, we fill it with information we already know. We know that at the end of the story, John DeLorean will go down for fraud, so this is the first chink in the armor, and the place where the fraud begins.  

Another key point in the documentary involves the suggestion that DeLorean secured enough money from private investors to save the company. His brilliant engineer, Bill Collins, would tell us that a suspicious clause in a contract, led to him to be somewhat suspicious, but no one else saw any telltale signs of possible fraudulent activity. The talking heads in the documentary express their confusion over what DeLorean allegedly did with the investor’s money (again, a jury of his peers found him not guilty), because they suggest he had enough to save the company. The details are either a bit sketchy, or it’s difficult to follow talk of money, but it appears as though DeLorean secured the necessary funds from investors, he embezzled it, and then he agreed to take part in the sale of cocaine to replace the investor’s money he stole. (A jury found DeLorean not guilty of attempting to sell cocaine, but he was caught, on tape, in an FBI sting operation.)

One plus one equals two and a group of accountants found the missing investor money that John DeLorean hid in various accounts. We were right. This man was a fraud. The question we keep coming back to throughout Framing DeLorean is, was he fraudulent all along, or did he get too caught up in being a successful genius and a renegade who decided he was the one to take on the Big Three of the automotive industry? Did he love the fame, fortune, and the accompanying family life he enjoyed so much that his passion for the DMC DeLorean diminished by comparison? Did he love his pep rally presentations so much that he didn’t want to taint the character he created and others adored, and he didn’t want to give any “poke the genius” players material with a production delay to fix the structural errors of the car? We can guess that whole idea of structural errors and production delays are a pain in the tailbone for auto manufacturers. We can guess that testers always find something, because that’s their job, and a big-idea-genius-engineer often mischaracterizes their findings so often that he begins dismissing so many of them that he ends up dismissing all of them.  

Was John DeLorean was a victim of big-idea-guy disease? Big idea guys who turn into acclaimed geniuses often have a difficult time dealing with the minutiae of their craft. Big idea guys enjoy stepping on a stage to present their big ideas to their audience. The other guys, guys like Bill Simmons, often prefer to execute their genius in the shadow of the glitz and glamor of the big guys. In DeLorean’s former world, as an engineer in the Pontiac subdivision of GM, he had a number of little guys check and balance his idea on his designs before they rolled off the assembly line. He probably took that part of the process for granted as an engineer, but when he became a CEO he couldn’t ignore that part of the process anymore, and it appears as though he did. We can guess that the star child engineer at GM grew tired of everyone questioning him and diminishing his status, and that that drove him to go it alone. At GM, he probably felt like a Rottweiler in a world of Yorkies nipping at his heels. When he opened the doors to the DeLorean Motor Company, he began building a car of the future, and when those pesky Yorkies began telling him that the car’s performance and power weren’t as advertised and the gall wing doors had a tendency to lock up and prevent exit, he considered these issues small matters in the grand scheme of things. Who cares that the car may not be as powerful as critics would prefer, we’re selling Shangri-La here. When DeLorean was an engineer at GM, he could be a big idea man, because he had a team of engineers and higher ups who would shoulder most of that mindless minutia, and he could be the big idea genius who soaked in all the accolades of the finished product.

Take everything we’ve discussed thus far and add an unbelievable dose of pressure on top. He probably placed most of the pressure on himself to maintain his star status, but we have to imagine that he felt pressure from the family to maintain the lifestyle. Add to that, the pressure of having someone like Johnny Carson as a private investor. Having Carson on board was probably a boon in the beginning, as all DeLorean had to say was, “Carson’s on board,” to entice future investors. That line alone, probably quintupled his investments. When matters go awry, as they did for DeLorean, he likely feared Carson using his late-night show to exact revenge. Coupled with all that, was the idea that Britain invested $140 million, and DeLorean had the economy of Northern Ireland counting on his success. That unbelievable amount of pressure might have played a role in John DeLorean eventually doing what he did. 

The final truth is we’ll never know why DeLorean did what he did, but the otherwise unwatchable movie Game Change served up a quote that sums John DeLorean up well. When speaking of why presidential candidate John McCain does what he does to try to have even his most ardent adversaries love him, his campaign adviser says, “If we could explain why they do the things they do, we’d probably have more of them.”

Is it possible that John Zachary DeLorean was the equivalent of an early 20th Century huckster? Of course it’s possible, but I don’t see how anyone can approach the full story of DeLorean’s career, with an open mind, and walk away thinking it’s probable that he stepped out of the offices of GM set to defraud the world.

When I watched Framing DeLorean, I did not see the main character as a malevolent Oliver Stone character. I saw a Coen Brothers character. I saw a plot that involves a man falling prey to a series of actions and reactions that could’ve been avoided if he just did that one now frustrating thing that could’ve solved the problem early on.  

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