The man in question was not a Hollywood actor or a rock star, nor even a well-intentioned politician. He was a maverick car engineer.
Many Irish people felt more than a twinge of sadness to hear of the death of John Zachary DeLorean. All his well-documented flaws and failures never quite erased the fondness with which he was regarded in Belfast and beyond.
DeLorean’s trajectory through life was dramatic — in both up and down directions. Born in Detroit in 1925 to poor European immigrants — his abusive, alcoholic father walked out of the family home, leaving his mother to raise her four sons alone — DeLorean never supped from the silver spoon.
But he was startlingly intelligent. After spells at a high school for gifted students and a Detroit technology institute, he took the auto industry by storm.
We outline some of DeLorean’s astonishing early achievements elsewhere in this issue of the Irish Echo. Here, suffice it to say that by his 40th birthday, he was already spoken of as the greatest car engineer of his generation.
DeLorean could certainly be hubristic. Yet when he said at the end of his career, “I don’t think there’s a car in the world that doesn’t have something I created on it even now,” he was merely stating a fact.
He left General Motors, where he had made his name, in 1973. He wanted to start his own company. The notion of locating the plant that would build a revolutionary sports car in Belfast seemed a quixotic chimera. DeLorean made it a reality.
The successive British governments that gave financial backing to the DeLorean Motor Company had their own agenda, of course — they believed that the creation of thousands of jobs in West Belfast would reduce support for the IRA.
The people who became DeLorean employees didn’t concern themselves about that, one way or another. They were happy to see jobs come to a city pockmarked not only by years of conflict, but by economic deprivation and large-scale unemployment. At its peak, 2,600 people worked at the DeLorean factory.
It didn’t last, of course. The factory closed in 1982 amid allegations that DeLorean had defrauded the British government. He remained wanted in Britain until the end of his life.
He was also, infamously, arrested on cocaine charges during the same period. His 1984 acquittal remains as inexplicable now as it seemed then.
DeLorean spent much of the rest of his life trying to evade creditors. He was eventually declared bankrupt in 1999. The man who once owned two mansions and a huge residence on New York’s Fifth Avenue lived out his final days in a modest New Jersey apartment.
We do not suggest that DeLorean’s foibles should be glossed over — they are too fundamental for that. But his immense creativity, his flair and his drive should be properly acknowledged too.
John DeLorean could be misleading, Machiavellian and flat-out dishonest. But he was also one of the automotive industry’s last romantics. Few others have dared to dream such dreams. Fewer still have had the talent to come so close to achieving them.
The world is poorer for his passing.