December 2, 2023

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Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Back to the Future with De Lorean

6 min read
The movie Back to the Future featured a DeLorean car but behind that story was a real-life scandal in Northern Ireland as Tony McMahon discovers
DeLorean DMC

As all fans of the Back to the Future movie franchise know – the characters time-travelled in a DMC DeLorean car fitted with something called a “flux capacitor”. Essentially a plutonium-powered De Lorean vehicle designed by the fictional character Dr Emmett Brown. He reveals it to his young buddy Marty McFly and then sends his dog Einstein one minute into the future to show it works. And from that point the adventure begins. The 1985 movie was a blockbuster hit followed by sequels in 1989 and 1990. It’s a quintessential Reagan era bit of escapist fun. In fact, Ronald Reagan was reportedly delighted that when Marty and Doc go back to 1955, one of his movies was on a billboard in the background.

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The Northern Ireland conflict – DeLorean to the rescue!

But our main interest isn’t in the adventures of Marty and Doc – but the less savoury adventures of John DeLorean. This is a tale of politicians with a big problem that a dapper businessman claimed he could help solve. A ten-year conflict in Northern Ireland meeting an American auto industry executive who talked the talk and impressed UK government ministers. So much so that they poured millions into a venture with the promise of job creation and an amazing car that would wow buyers worldwide.

And then the dream turned sour…

In terms of due diligence, DeLorean looked credible enough on paper. Born in America’s motor city, Detroit, he worked at General Motors where he received the credit for designing and marketing the very successful Pontiac GTO. This was one of a breed of ultra-stylish 1960s “muscle cars”. From the mid-1960s, DeLorean promoted his own personal cult projecting himself as a maverick in the corporate sector. This was very much in tune with the times. He was suave, liked the high life, and appeared to defy convention.

After a successful stint heading up GM’s Chevrolet division, it seemed all but inevitable that DeLorean would end up as President of General Motors. However, the old guard weren’t having it. Finding his upward progress blocked, DeLorean left GM. His main beef, he said on the way out, was that the company was more interested in selling bland cars at a rebate than making customers’ eyes light up when they entered a showroom.

DeLorean’s desire to create a futuristic dream car and the British government’s need to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict crossed over in 1978. DeLorean offered to build an auto plant in the province where a terrorist conflict between Republicans and Loyalist had claimed hundreds of lives throughout the 1970s. As a result of the violence, Northern Ireland suffered high levels of unemployment and was reliant on government subsidies. Perfect, argued DeLorean. I’ll create jobs in return for some of that taxpayers’ money. The Labour government of James Callaghan duly obliged.

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State at the time – the man responsible for trying to rule this restive province – was a pugnacious ex-miner called Roy Mason. It wasn’t as if Mason had no knowledge of the outside world, like many politicians today. This abrasive parliamentary operator had worked himself up from the coal pits to high political office. He was tough on security and tackling terrorism. But he was also seeking any solution that might improve the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland. Mason realised that idle hands on the streets of the province could only too easily turn to terrorist deeds. Mason described DeLorean’s offer as a “great psychological boost for Ulster”. On 28 July 1978, the government signed a multi-million pound agreement with DMC (DeLorean Motor Company) – a decision the UK would come to bitterly regret.

Were there any warnings to the government about DMC? Yes, the consultants McKinsey didn’t give DeLorean’s projected sales figure any credibility. The Economist newspaper signalled its concern. Joel Barnett, Chief Secretary to the Treasury told Roy Mason he wasn’t convinced. And the left-wing Labour MP Bob Cryer described the whole scheme as the worst thing since the 18th century South Sea Bubble – a fraudulent investment scheme that crashed spectacularly. Everybody should have paused for thought when DeLorean invoked God as being on his side:

“I’m starting to recognise that God stuck me here to be part of the solution to the problem in Northern Ireland.”

FIND OUT MORE: Northern Ireland in 1979

Thatcher lends her support

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. In her first two terms in office, she would dismantle the UK’s nationalised car maker, British Leyland selling off iconic brands like Jaguar and Land Rover. So one might have expected Thatcher to cut off the funding to DeLorean. But not a bit of it. Instead, she pumped another £30m into his Northern Irish venture. Why? Well, this was a private sector solution to a political problem. It undoubtedly appealed to her ideologically. Even though she may have had some misgivings about DeLorean himself.

The problem was that creating jobs in Northern Ireland cost ten times as much as the rest of the UK. Now, while Thatcher may have been happy to let market forces do their work on the mainland, even if that meant high unemployment, the province was a different matter. It needed special handling. And like all Prime Ministers before her, Thatcher had no wish to see the situation deteriorate even further.

DeLorean’s begging bowl was filled repeatedly. Thatcher’s second Northern Ireland secretary of state James Prior was more of an economic interventionist than the Prime Minister. Like Roy Mason, he believed this kind of industrial strategy could lessen the terrorist risk. And one encouraging sign of sentiment in local communities was the low level of absenteeism on the production line. Workers genuinely appeared to want DeLorean to succeed.

And the cars rolling off the production line were certainly a unique proposition. Gullwing doors that opened skywards. Even though that would mean the driver was trapped inside if the car rolled over. A stainless steel finish that was rustproof. Executives from the sports car maker Lotus were drafted in to help design this stylish vehicle. But…the whole design and engineering process was rushed with growing turmoil behind the scenes. A report in May 1980 noted that crash testing had not been completed. The car’s launch date slipped repeatedly and the likely cost to the consumer in the showroom kept rising.

Add to that, the DeLorean workers didn’t come from a car making heritage like their counterparts in Detroit. This was reflected in the cars that eventually rolled off the lines and all too often thousands of dollars of repairs had to be performed on vehicles before they could be sold.

DeLorean hits the skids

As is often the case, the fall of DeLorean had more to do with his personal lifestyle than the shakiness of his business. His lavish expenditure was especially irksome given the amount of taxpayers money that had been poured into DMC. How to account for gold taps bought in Harrod’s for executive washrooms? Or the large amounts of money spent on DeLorean’s personal public relations? And flying executives to New York on Concorde – the supersonic airliner. While at the same time demanding more handouts from Whitehall.

DeLorean went into receivership after a period in which his behaviour became increasingly erratic. In the aftermath of the death of Republican hunger strike Bobby Sands, there were riots. During these disturbances, the DMC offices in Belfast were damaged. DeLorean claimed to the UK government that weeks of production had been lost, executives subjected to sniper fire and the factory bombed 140 times (source: Ian Ball, ‘DeLorean Claims 140 Bomb Raids’, Daily Telegraph, 4 February 1982). Police records simply didn’t back up these claims with their accompanying financial demands. The final closure of the factory gates saw 2,700 workers sent home for good – at a time when unemployment across the UK was skyrocketing.

The whole DeLorean saga reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons (Marge versus the Monorail) where a smooth talking salesman called Lyle Lanley turns up in Springfield and convinces the town it needs a monorail. When in fact it doesn’t. And the monorail won’t work anyway. Especially with Homer put in charge. Anyway, not wishing to stretch any analogies, the DeLorean car was a bright and shiny thing that wowed politicians fed up of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Nothing else had worked. Maybe a weird car with gullwing doors could resolve the conflict. Desperation? Oh yes!

Oh, incidentally, DeLorean did file a patent for a monorail in 1994. It was never built. There is no resemblance to that Simpsons episode of course

Back to the future with DeLorean…

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