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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March, 2005, 11:58 GMT
DeLorean's dream of Belfast car empire
DeLorean car
DeLorean cars retain a cult following more than 20 years later
Battered by the Troubles in the early 1980s, Northern Ireland was stuck in the economic doldrums when charismatic US motor executive John DeLorean offered what looked to be a lifeline.

A few short years later, his factory had closed and the prospective saviour was lucky to avoid jail after being caught pretty much red-handed with a briefcase full of cocaine.

Still wanted on charges of fraud in the UK at the time of his death at the age of 80, DeLorean's story is one of overreaching ambition, greed and a touch of Hollywood-style glitz.

Detroit-born DeLorean rose quickly through the ranks of the American motor industry and he certainly had the combination of ego and drive to attempt to turn Belfast into the centre of a new empire to challenge giants like Ford and Chevrolet.

He was an up-and-coming executive at General Motors who could have made it to the top when he quit in 1973 to launch the DeLorean Motor Car Company.

"I was the youngest vice president General Motors ever had, I was the youngest group executive, the youngest head of Pontiac, the youngest chief engineer and the youngest head of Chevrolet," he recalled.

Looking back, he described himself as "a pretty talented engineer".

"I don't think there's a car in the world that doesn't have something I created on it even now," he said.

Features patented by him included the recessed windscreen wiper and the overhead cam engine, and he created the GTO "muscle car" still fondly remembered more than 40 years later.

John DeLorean in his car
1956: Joined General Motors as Pontiac engineering director
1964: Created GTO
1973: Quit General Motors to form own company
1978: Secures funding for Belfast car factory
1981: First cars roll off production line
1982: Car plant closes
1983: DeLorean company collapses
1984: Acquitted of drugs charges
1999: Declared bankrupt

Having gone it alone, his next step was to find money to invest in his new company.

DeLorean's winning mixture of expertise and sales know-how convinced the Labour government to invest in his stainless steel gull-winged sports cars in 1978.

The government backed his factory with 80m of public money, in the hope that it would create 2,000 jobs in west Belfast.

"It'll be a great psychological boost for Ulster," said Labour Northern Ireland Secretary Roy Mason, adding that it would also be a "hammer blow" to the IRA.

Unemployment across Northern Ireland was twice the national average in the 1970s; nearly half the men in the Catholic areas close to DeLorean's proposed plant were out of work.

DeLorean's DMC-12 car began rolling off production lines at the Dunmurry plant in 1981, but before long, glitches started to plague the operation.

He weathered allegations of financial impropriety but even after the government's investment, he was asking for more money.

Ivan Fallon, author of Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John DeLorean, says he was an "extraordinary engineer who rose from modest beginnings in Detroit" whose problems started when he "went Hollywood".

"He shed his wife, he went on a crash diet, he dyed his hair black and had a major face-lift - that manly chin was created by a foam-like material in his chin," he says.

"He stopped concentrating on what he was very good at, which was making cars, to become this jet-setting guy."

DeLorean's money woes were spiralling out of control and he had to do something to salvage his dream.

Michael J Fox in Back to the Future
The DeLorean car was immortalised in Back to the Future

In 1982, he was arrested in Los Angeles and accused of conspiring to sell cocaine worth 12m.

He used the legal defence of entrapment and was acquitted of the drug charges in 1984, despite being caught on video calling a suitcase full of cocaine "good as gold".

By this time, DeLorean's dream of a giant motor empire in Belfast was over.

Fewer than 9,000 cars had rolled off the production lines before its closure in 1982.

DeLorean was later cleared of defrauding investors and declared himself bankrupt in 1999, but even at the time of his death, he was wanted by the British government for fraud.

The failure of the DeLorean company left a lot of people hurt and disappointed, including former worker Dick Mulholland:

"He was a guy who brought a dream, we all lived that dream, we all felt part of that dream... but when you found out what had really gone on, you had to say to yourself that a lot of the blame must lie with John DeLorean," he says.

In later life, DeLorean became a born-again Christian who confessed he had been an "arrogant egomaniac".

However, there is no doubt he enjoyed the ride.

"You get to a certain point and all of a sudden, you're living a lifestyle you can't believe," he said.

"A fleet of private planes at your disposal, everywhere you go there's cars to meet you at the airport, they take your luggage to the hotel to check it in - you basically do nothing.

"It was a pretty incredible life."

20m spent on De Lorean lawyers
12 Feb 04 |  Northern Ireland
Debt forces DeLorean out of mansion
13 Jan 00 |  Northern Ireland
Back to the futuristic
19 Feb 02 |  UK News

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