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MARCH 23, 2005

The sad tale of John DeLorean

John DeLorean has died at the age of 80. He was not involved in Formula 1 but played an important role in destroying the Lotus brand, taking the gloss off what had been a stellar name in the 1960s and 1970s.

Trained as an engineer he started his career as the head of research at Packard in the early 1950s. In 1950 he moved to Pontiac as director of advanced engineering and by 1965 had become its general manager at the age of only 39. Four years later he was put into the top job at Chevrolet and seemed to be on his way to the top job at General Motors when he decided in 1974 to do his own thing and established the DeLorean Motor Car Co. in Northern Ireland. The venue was chosen because of government subsidies available, the Labour government offering him £40m to build a factory at Dunmurry, to the south-west of Belfast.

In 1979 he signed a deal with Lotus to develop the first DeLorean. The car was flashy (a reflection of DeLorean himself) but was not much beyond a Lotus Esprit with a revamped Renault V6 engine. The DMC12 went into production at the end of 1980 but the resulting product was disappointing and badly-built. The company went bust in January 1982 after only 8500 cars had been built. Chaos followed. DeLorean was arrested for being a cocaine dealer (he later got off the charges because of a defence of entrapment). The investigations which followed into what had happened to all the cash and discovered that $17.5m had disappeared into a Panama-based firm called General Product Development Services, ostensibly to pay Lotus. In fact this had been divided up between DeLorean, Lotus boss Colin Chapman and his sidekick Fred Bushell. Chapman, the man who had done so much in F1 in the 1960s and 1970s, died of a heart attack at the end of 1982 at the early age of 54. It was fortunate that he died when he did and so avoided the scandal. A judge in Belfast later remarked that if Chapman had been alive he would have been sent to jail for 10 years for an "outrageous and massive fraud". Bushell was jailed for three years in 1992 but DeLorean successfully fought off extradition charges from several countries. He was finally declared bankrupt in 1999.

Today the most enduring memory of the DMC12 is that it went on to movie stardom in the film Back to the Future.

Lotus struggled on being sold to General Motors in 1988. The Formula 1 team too lost its bright image and became a midfield player by the end of the decade. An attempt to revive the team in the early 1990s was not a success and the team closed its doors in 1995, although former racer David Hunt has promised that he will revive the name.