June 14, 2024


Where Innovation Lives

What if John Z. DeLorean ran GM?

3 min read

What if John Z. DeLorean ran General Motors? The auto industry is filled with what-ifs, and a recent documentary on DeLorean, appropriately titled “Myth and Mogul,” got me thinking.

The man was unmistakably brilliant. He wasn’t the Elon Musk of his time. Musk is the DeLorean of this century in terms of innovation. DeLorean started as a buttoned-down engineer in the 1950s at GM and rose all the way to vice president.

He was 48 years old in 1973 when he left GM. Depending on what you believe, he either left the company or was told to depart. With his head down for a few more years, maybe he’s running the show by 1980.

In this alternate history GM might have been willing to take more risks in the 1980s, which weren’t kind to the Big Three as Americans continued to shift to smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Would GM have avoided such distractions as buying EDS from Ross Perot? Maybe with DeLorean at the helm, Cadillac transitions to more compelling products sooner and doesn’t squander decades of luxury leadership in the U.S. to German and Japanese rivals.

Almost assuredly he would have pushed for a more interesting, aggressive product portfolio, and if he lasted long enough in the top job, maybe even the EV1 program doesn’t get killed.

Or maybe not. Perhaps none of this happens. Watching this documentary (there are a few good ones out there about him and plenty of books) underscores that DeLorean’s signature traits — passion, ambition, vision, a wild streak, unscrupulous business practices at times — probably wouldn’t have kept him at the helm very long, if he ever got there at all.

DeLorean Motor Cars liquidated when John DeLorean got caught in a drug bust captured on video, which almost boggles the mind 40 years later. He was later acquitted, though his auto career was in shambles. “Myth and Mogul” does a good job of putting DeLorean’s management abilities, or lack thereof, on display.

John DeLorean and his wife, Cristina Ferrare, outside the federal courthouse in Los Angeles in November 1982. DeLorean attended the arraignment at which he was charged with cocaine trafficking. (AP)

Though GM was still by far the largest automaker in the world in the 1980s, the seeds of its historic 2009 bankruptcy were partially sown back then. DeLorean probably wouldn’t have been able to do enough to change the course of history. Interestingly, as described in a 2011 Automotive News feature, some of his peers actually viewed DeLorean as a product of GM’s buttoned-down culture at the time rather than the maverick he styled himself to be.

Was he the visionary who might have better adapted to overseas competition? He certainly had the intellect. But the probable answer is he would have held the job for five years or so and be a footnote to history. Can you name the GM president from 1983?

Conversely, even non-car people have heard the name DeLorean and can connect his car’s gullwing doors to “Back to the Future.” The DeLorean is still a footnote, but it’s a memorable one.

DeLorean is an interesting case. It’s striking how willing he was to take a risk, and how outside of Musk and Tesla, t
hat sort of bravado isn’t common in the auto industry today.

Similarly, larger-than-life characters Lee Iacocca and Bob Lutz were passed over for the top jobs at Ford and Chrysler, respectively. Henry Ford II famously fired Iacocca, leading him to end up at Chrysler, where he turned the company around with the help of a bailout. His leadership strategies are still studied today. Ironically, when Iacocca stepped down, he passed over Lutz, widely considered to be the most astute product guru in the industry. Lutz later rose to vice chairman of GM.

It’s impossible to know what a DeLorean-led General Motors would have accomplished. But perhaps his modern-day alter ego sheds some light. Musk, recently testifying in court, said he doesn’t enjoy being CEO of Tesla — he’d rather be designing something. It’s a statement and a setting that ironically echoed DeLorean, and perhaps that’s the answer to our original question. John Z. DeLorean might have risen to the top at GM, but he probably wouldn’t have liked it very much.

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