Framing John DeLorean
Cars, cocaine and a world-class conman: He built the car made famous in Back To The Future. But John DeLorean was also a drug smuggler and serial womaniser who conned the British Government out of millions, as a very racy new film reveals
October 2019 by TOM LEONARD for THE DAILY MAIL
As secretly shot video footage would later show, the FBI sting on John DeLorean perfectly captured how a supremely cunning man could be blinded by greed.
As he sat down in Room 501 of the Sheraton Plaza La Reina hotel in Los Angeles with men he thought were drug dealers, but were, in fact, undercover agents, their colleagues were watching and waiting in the adjoining rooms.
At DeLorean's feet lay a suitcase containing nearly 60lb of cocaine, apparently fresh from Colombia.
'It's better than gold. Gold weighs more than that, for God's sake,' laughed the famous car-maker, delightedly.
He was toasting their success in the $24 million criminal enterprise — money he said he would use to shore up his floundering car business — when agents burst in. They slapped cuffs on his hands, which, moments earlier, had been holding a celebratory glass of champagne.
It was October 1982, and DeLorean, a suave, 57-year-old American entrepreneur with film-star looks and a genius for self-promotion, was witnessing the death of his dreams.
On the same day, the Thatcher Government finally called time on his Belfast car plant after the British taxpayer had thrown tens of millions of pounds into keeping it going.
Clad in stainless steel and featuring gullwing doors, his sci fi-looking DMC-12 appeared as if it could fly, but became one of the biggest jokes in manufacturing history.
Anyone who knew of its miserable story would have sniggered when it turned up as Marty McFly's time-travelling car in the Back To The Future movies (it was chosen because the film-makers wanted a car that looked like an alien spaceship.
Now, new film Driven is going back in time to tell the tale of DeLorean and how the Machiavellian crook's grand plan to build an 'ethical' sports car in Northern Ireland ended in drug-trafficking charges and disgrace.
Bizarrely, after several failed attempts to bring the story to the screen, two DeLorean films have come out within months of each other (Alec Baldwin played him in the docu-drama Framing John DeLorean in July).
Driven — an entertaining, if only loosely factual, comedy-drama directed by Belfast-born British director Nick Hamm and written by Ulsterman Colin Bateman — is set in southern California.
It was there that DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) became fatefully acquainted with a neighbour, Jim Hoffman (Jason Sudeikis), a pilot with a criminal past who was, in fact, an FBI informant.
The film, released in the UK next month, had to imagine much of their unlikely relationship, as DeLorean died in 2005, while Hoffman has for decades lived in anonymity under the U.S. Government's witness protection scheme.
Hoffman was almost certainly not DeLorean's bosom buddy, as portrayed in Driven. They were neighbours only briefly, and DeLorean insisted that they had spoken once before Hoffman phoned him just a month before the FBI sting.
Each man claimed it was the other who first suggested DeLorean should get involved in cocaine smuggling — a vital point, since the answer might indicate whether he could argue that he was entrapped.
Hoffman claimed in court that DeLorean told him he hoped that by investing $2 million with Hoffman's drug-trafficking contacts, he could make up to $50 million.
But, even without either's input, the film-makers hardly needed to embellish a Hollywood-ready saga of drugs, sports cars, beautiful women, terrorists, multi-million-pound theft and Margaret Thatcher.
John DeLorean was as eye- catching as his car — a 6ft 4in, languid smoothie with a mane of silver hair. He was so vain he had a chin implant and a facelift.
The son of a Ford foundry worker, Detroit-born DeLorean was a brilliant engineer who had a starry career in the U.S. automobile industry before he walked out of General Motors to set up on his own.
An egotistical narcissist whose beads, jewellery and long hair flouted the dress code of the conservative GM, he wanted to build his own cars.
Few worried about their public image as much as DeLorean. The playboy car designer befriended celebrities and went out with Hollywood stars including Candice Bergen, Ursula Andress and Frank Sinatra's daughter Tina.
He was impossibly smug. 'I've got a reasonably strong sex drive. No man who ever accomplished something didn't have that characteristic,' he once boasted.
He married four times. His second wife, Kelly, aged 19 when they wed, was 24 years his junior, so the General Motors press office made her older in its marriage announcement.
When they split, he bragged that his Hollywood friends treated him to a 'classy' weekend in Malibu with three young prostitutes who looked like her.
In 1973, he married model Cristina Ferrare after seeing her in Vogue. She was 25 years younger than him.
They and their two children (one of whom DeLorean had previously adopted) lived on a 440-acre country estate in New Jersey.
Driven portrays DeLorean as a maverick visionary who cuts corners only to save his company and thousands of Northern Irish jobs. That may wash with U.S. audiences but, in Britain — his chief victim — he is remembered as a conman.
Cristina liked to say that her charismatic husband could walk into a room and talk anybody into anything. He certainly talked Jim Callaghan's Labour Government into handing over tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.
DeLorean turned up in Belfast in 1978 to sell Northern Ireland his concept of an 'ethical', long-lasting dream car that would be safe, economical and rustproof. The two-seater had an unpainted stainless steel body and gullwing doors.
DeLorean had an impressive track record in America, celebrity backers including Sammy Davis Jr and chat-show king Johnny Carson, a rock-star image and a highly persuasive manner. He also claimed, wrongly, that he had already secured 30,000 orders for his car in the U.S.
Worried that DeLorean could take his business elsewhere, and keen to reduce the heavy unemployment that fuelled sectarian violence in Ulster, the British Government opened its wallet.
Roy Mason, then Northern Ireland Secretary, injected £54 million — more than half the total start-up costs — to help build the world's most modern car factory in Dunmurry, a suburb of West Belfast with the highest unemployment in Europe. Renault would make the engines, while Lotus Cars, the British sports car manufacturer, would design the chassis and bodywork. The rest of the money came from private U.S. investors.
Concern that the local workforce had never before built high-quality cars was swept aside, as were some people's misgivings about DeLorean, who'd been investigated at General Motors for allegedly taking bribes.
The plant would create 2,500 jobs, and Mr Mason fancifully predicted the boost to Ulster's self-confidence would be a 'hammer blow' to the IRA.
Never modest, DeLorean declared: 'I'm starting to think that God stuck me here to be part of the solution to the crisis in Northern Ireland.'
But nothing about dazzling Mr DeLorean was quite what it seemed. For a start, he was a compulsive liar.
Although he liked to say he and his wife lived in a palatial Dunmurry home, he was terrified of being targeted by IRA kidnappers and never stayed a night there. Instead, he would commute from London, where he stayed in top hotels.
As with a 20-room apartment he rented on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, palatial offices in nearby Park Avenue and a small army of servants, the British taxpayer was footing the bill for everything. DeLorean even hired a well-spoken British secretary to put UK officials at ease when they visited him in New York.+6
Cristina liked to say that her charismatic husband could walk into a room and talk anybody into anything. He certainly talked Jim Callaghan's Labour Government into handing over tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money
DeLorean was secretly seeing a New York psychic, whom he consulted about business, and once paid her a six-figure sum to use her powers to make his wife pregnant.
His breathless claims to have created the ultimate sports car were also a lot of hot air. It was neither as fuel-efficient nor as safe as he claimed.
There were production issues with the DMC-12 from the start, as the first cars started coming off the line in 1981.
The gullwing doors didn't always work properly — sometimes trapping people inside — while the stainless steel exterior showed every fingerprint. Motoring experts complained the car was underpowered and handled badly.
Another big problem was that the $25,000 car was almost as pricey as a Porsche and had come out during a U.S. recession. By February 1982, when the company was put into receivership by the British Government, more than half of the cars produced remained unsold.
DeLorean's charm cut little ice with Jim Callaghan's successor, Mrs Thatcher. After giving the firm two further subsidies, she pulled the plug.
Hours before DeLorean's arrest by the FBI in 1982, the Conservative Government announced it was permanently closing the car plant. By then, Britain had sunk £84 million into the project.
Before his subsequent trial for cocaine trafficking, prosecutors revealed how DeLorean sensationally claimed he had been in cahoots with the IRA in the drugs deal.
They said he had told undercover agents he had the financial backing and protective muscle of the Provos. The IRA denied this.
During DeLorean's trial, Jim Hoffman said the car designer, desperate for money to keep his company going, had asked him to set up a drug-smuggling deal (in which DeLorean would finance the purchase of 220lb of cocaine in Colombia), after learning that Hoffman had previously flown cocaine shipments into the U.S. from Latin America.
Hoffman was working for the FBI, though — and the bureau, posing as crooked bankers, even lent DeLorean the $2 million he needed to buy the cocaine when he couldn't raise it himself.
Fortunately for DeLorean, the jury accepted the defence claim that he had been entrapped. Acquitted, he avoided prison, but could not escape disgrace and eventual bankruptcy.
'Would you buy a used car from me?' he quipped presciently as he left court.
In the end, no more than 9,000 of his cars were produced, and the entire workforce lost their jobs.
Investigators found nearly $18 million had gone missing through a secret Panama-registered, Geneva-based firm DeLorean had set up to pay Lotus for its design work.
Virtually none of it was spent on the car; instead, it was shared by DeLorean and the founder of Lotus, Colin Chapman. The latter died in 1982, escaping prosecution.
The British Government spent ten years trying to sue DeLorean's auditors but, in 1992, it settled out of court for just £18 million.
A British judge said he would have liked to sentence him to ten years in prison for 'barefaced, outrageous and massive fraud' over stolen UK taxpayers' money.
His wife stuck by him during his trial but, discovering during it that he had lied to her, she left him as soon as it was over.
She became a TV presenter and, in 1993, testified that she'd seen DeLorean practising forging signatures and using a lamp bulb to age documents.
Cristina said recently: 'He was so charismatic, so worldly, so smart, handsome . . . I was mesmerised by him. I fell deeply in love with him, and I remained so up until the end, when I realised that John couldn't go from point A to point B in a straight line.'
DeLorean, who never set foot in Britain again, spent the rest of his life in and out of court.
He married for a fourth time, and claimed to be a born- again Christian.
And he blamed everyone but himself for his downfall, even insisting that the British Government had closed the car plant because it believed its Catholic workforce was helping to fund the IRA.
He declared bankruptcy in 1999 and moved into a one-bedroom flat, where he lived largely off social security.
He died in 2005 from a stroke, at the age of 80. His Michigan gravestone depicts a DeLorean with its doors invitingly open.