Automotive History: John Z. DeLorean, The BMW Turbo And The Birth Of The DeLorean

There are coincidences and there are coincidences. According to the dictionary, the word describes a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.

At top is an illustration from the brochure of the BMW Turbo. Beneath, an illustration from a document outlining the DeLorean Safety Vehicle. This is no coincidence.

It’s early 1974 and John DeLorean already had a lot to look back on.

Not ten years before, he was the youngest-ever head of a General Motors car division. Don’t let those baby-jowls fool you; this guy was a tiger.

By education, an engineer and MBA. After a short stint with Chrysler, John DeLorean got a job at Packard and by 1956 was head of Research and Development. It was a soft start to an automotive career; Packard was seriously on the wane but nevertheless a lesson in itself. It was here that John DeLorean became closely acquainted with the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing.

Working on a fuel-injection project, he had turned to one of his engineers, Heinz Pringham, for advice on the best system available. Heinz opined with the Bosch unit used on the Gullwing. DeLorean instructed him to buy one of the cars for appraisal. For six months it was Pringham’s daily driver; enjoyed especially by his son Frank (at right) on school runs.

September of 1956, and DeLorean was in charge of advanced planning at Pontiac. He reported to new chief engineer Pete Estes under recently-new division head Bunkie Knudsen. The right place at the right time. Knudsen initiated a 20 year golden run for a moribund Pontiac, and DeLorean was a key figure in its success. An early inadvertent effort would resonate through the next decade.

In 1957, I was working with Chuck Jordan of GM Styling on developing a new independent rear suspension system for an advanced model car. We ran into a problem mounting the suspension system on convertible models, which were the rage of the era. To do the job, we had to spread out the rear wheels. And to make the car look right, we had to do the same to the front wheels. This gave our big cars a 64-inch tread.

We put the car into clay mock-up form and the two of us were amazed how the car looked so much better planted on the road. Widening the tread gave the illusion of lowering the car. The instant Bunkie saw the car he said, “Let’s put that on a production car”.

Very early spring 1963 and chewing the fat with Bill Collins and Russ Gee at the Milford proving grounds. Bill pointed out the 389 V8 engine would fit into the new Tempest. Russ proposed building it in his Experimental Department. DeLorean gave the go-ahead.

By now Pete Estes had taken over Bunkie Kundsen’s job, and DeLorean was chief engineer. Problem was, GM rules didn’t allow for such a large engine in an intermediate model. So Estes put the engine into the range as an option and not as a model, a canny move to avoid scrutiny by the Fourteenth Floor. The dawn of the muscle-car.

In 1965, a 40 year-old DeLorean was appointed head of Pontiac. He inherited it a marque in ship-shape. The range was still setting benchmarks across the entire industry, let alone within the General Motors family.

His remit was now much broader, and he found himself having to deal with issues such as outdated plants and a recalcitrant sales division as much as the product itself.

He was no longer reporting to just one man; from now on he would have to justify himself to the Fourteenth Floor.

This suite of executives built on a Sloanian framework was positioned at the top of the whole GM hierarchy. Chairman, Presidents, preferred Vice-Presidents and the all-powerful Committees worked, ate and sometimes slept in an exclusive zone covering one of the end I-sections of the GM building in Detroit.

These were supra-divisional beings sitting at the apex of corporate America. And yet in 1965, this 1920s structure was calcifying.

DeLorean didn’t stop moving. He was already working on a sporty two-seater coded XP-833. It was to be smaller than the Corvette with as much sourced from the parts bin as possible. The idea was to provide a very wide range of options over a relatively cheap base. DeLorean was quite partial to this project; Bill Collins had put the idea to him in 1963 and they kept at it. By 1965, two running protoypes were built; the first powered by a 230 six, and the second with a 326 V8.

In September 1965, Bill Mitchell received a memo instructing him to repurpose the Pontiac XP-833 clay into ‘a Chevrolet design for the two-passenger version coupe.’

Maybe this one.

Top image is the Corvair Monza studio around 1962. Beneath, Shinoda and Schinella’s XP-819 ‘Ugly Duckling’ – a rear-engined Corvette prototype from 1964.

This language was not Pontiac’s property. It belonged to General Motors.

And General Motors could do whatever they damn well like with it.

But this was all still beyond John DeLorean’s pay grade; Fourteenth Floor stuff.

He pleaded through to March 1966 for the XP-833. As a consolation of sorts, he was allowed to turn the Camaro into a Firebird.

His fixation with reducing size and weight continued. In 1967, he arranged for some models to be built of a proposed new fullsize range for Pontiac. They were based on the intermediates, but using a longer wheelbase. These models were so impressive, DeLorean managed to convince Pete Estes – now running Chevrolet – to go along with the project. Again: no from the Fourteenth Floor.

Except for one; the (wildly profitable) 1969 Grand Prix.

In 1969, DeLorean was running Chevrolet. The fast lane. Instead of one assembly plant, he was now juggling eleven.

It was a corporate car, not a divisional car.
It was being put together by people at least one step removed from the marketplace.

His time there is typified by the Vega. Although he was an exponent of a smaller car, the Vega was a child of the Fourteenth Floor. It was overseen personally by President Ed Cole and shaped by Bill Mitchell. Since the early 1960s Pontiac and Chevrolet had been developing their own sub-compacts, but the corporate proposal was chosen. This car put to market was well under par as both a sub-compact competitor and a consumer product.

DeLorean was subject to massive gravitational forces; where the inexorable rise is the compelling force without regard to necessity. He was hardly able to attend to Chevrolet’s many issues before being pushed upward into the Fourteenth Floor in 1972. The realm of learned helplessness. No longer tied to the day-to-day of running a carmaker, DeLorean was set adrift in ineffective meeting after meeting.

He was also suffering a personal withdrawal of sorts. Through Chevrolet’s marketing efforts in Hollywood, he had become one of the westcoast jetset. At the company’s expense, he enjoyed a sybaritic coterie far apart from the stuffed shirts and country clubs of Detroit. Access to this lifestyle was quelled somewhat by his separation from Chevrolet, and no doubt fed his frustrations. He wore a suit, but it was too flamboyantly cut. And he let his hair grow.

The Fourteenth Floor didn’t want him there, and he didn’t want to be there. Whether it was he or someone else who leaked the Greenbriar speech (his Jerry Maguire moment), his time this close to the sun was over.

DeLorean agreed to leave GM in June 1973. Not that he seemed to have much choice.

And now John was hanging loose.

There was no longer a $650,000 income, but there was the GM soft landing. DeLorean spent a year as a President of the National Alliance of Businessmen working on a project around employment for the disadvantaged. He gave speeches promoting his ideas on car size and weight savings.

At one outing he revealed that he had designed two cars over the past year; a mini-commuter and a sporty two-seater.

In early 1974, he met with journalist J. Patrick Wright and a book deal was made with Playboy Press. For the next year Wright took notes from conversations with DeLorean, then wrote out a text in first-person-John outlining the industry’s failures and his success. It included such chapters as How Moral Men Make Immoral Decisions that touched on GM’s handling of the Corvair.

Shown a finished manuscript in 1975, DeLorean was impressed but he was wary of GM and backflipped on publication. Despite this, he also refused to return Playboy’s advance and the project was left in limbo for four years.

In 1979 Wright published the book himself at a cost of $50,000, and saw nearly a million dollars from its sales.

DeLorean’s term with the National Alliance of Businessmen earned him his GM base of $200,000. There was a scattering of other interests including property – though none delivering at the scale of his previous employer.

He had a share in Grand Prix of America, seen above with second wife Cristine at the wheel. This was a Bricklin-inspired venture with the general public paying to drive rotary powered reduced-scale racers on private tracks. It was a dud and that year fell into bankruptcy. DeLorean ended up being sued by his brother Jack, who had brought him the deal.

In January 1974, he formed the John Z. DeLorean Corporation.

He was captured that June in his Detroit office by Time/Life. The putative car was now definitely a sportscar; save for the bike renderings there appears to be nothing of the mini-commuter. On the wall next to him are a number of car diagrams; Fiat X1-9, Porsche 914 and two mid-engined Corvettes.

When John became head of Chevrolet, Zora Arkus-Duntov introduced him to the Corvette concept they were planning to show that year.

If Harley Earl was the father of the Corvette, Arkus-Duntov was its cool uncle. He had been called in just after the car was conceived to add some zep to its performance. His became the dominant will on the model; he notoriously clashed with the Bill Mitchell on the C2’s split window. Mitchell won the battle, Arkus-Duntov won the war.

Nearing retirement, the XP-882 was to be Zora’s swansong.

The XP-882 project was commenced in 1967. A Toronado transfer case was mated to a 454 and positioned behind the driver. The body was slightly cab-forward and had a wide grille aperture that looked unfinished. This might have been as a result of airflow for the distant engine. The clay shows the shape with a more enclosed mouth, sharing the contours from the rest of this attractive shape.

Two cars were built, one for the 1969 New York Auto Show. It didn’t make as much of a stir as expected and the project was parked.

In 1973, DeLorean asked Bill Mitchell to provide a revised version of the XP-882. It was called XP-895 and involved an overhaul of the body. A sugar-scoop theme was used at the rear and the nose was slightly more faired with NACA dusts added. One of the 1969 cars was the donor for XP-895, with a body built in steel. It was too heavy.

DeLorean had an exact replica of the platform and body made in aluminium by Reynolds Metals. It was too expensive.

The other 1969 car was to become one of the greatest shapes to emerge from General Motors.

Thanks to a longer nose and revised greenhouse, this was the XP-882 as it should have been. Still cab-forward, the centre line defined by the leading point of the nose and the crease of the windscreen succeed in balancing the equilibrium. It is dynamic but not overbearing, with clean curvature and surfacing delicately but assuredly tempering the razor’s edge. Very sophisticated, but wondrously simple.

It was the work of Hank Haga and Jerry Palmer, with Ted Schroeder, Randy Wittine and Ron Will playing their part.

This shape very nearly made it to production. In 1975, it received a fresh round of promotion as the aero-vette. The aluminium chassis from the Reynolds XP-895 with 400 V8 was used as the basis for a road-going car and as of 1976 it was approved, with orders for production tooling awaiting go-ahead.

But Zora was gone. He retired from General Motors in 1974, and his cherished mid-engined Corvette had lost its greatest champion. The orders were never greenlit.

The aero-vette shape was first seen in 1973. Back then they called it the 4-rotor and it was a priority for GM.

Very, very reluctantly, Arkus-Duntov had put a rotary in the Corvette. In 1972, a 585 cu inch 4-Rotor was mated to the first 1969 XP-882 platform and Arkus-Duntov took President Ed Cole screaming around the 1-mile track in the bodiless car. It was still pulling when they backed off at 148 mph.

The 4-Rotor got a significantly better body than the concurrent XP-895.

The 2-Rotor got the XP-895’s sugar-scoops with the 4-Rotor’s windscreen crease. Ordered in 1973, XP-897 was a rush job and had to be built by Pininfarina. A Porsche 914 was sent to Italy and received a new body to a GM design over a 180hp rotary.

Tha 4-Rotor and 2-Rotor were sent to Paris for exhibition in October 1973. By the time they got there, GM’s rotary program had effectively been cancelled.

DeLorean was telling the press he had tried to get the mid-engined Corvette. What he was really angling for was the little Porsche-based XP-897.

He did end up getting a Fiat X1-9 – the Red Rocket. A DeLorean feasibility mule with Ford Cologne V6 mid-engined power married to a cartoon rear.

But that was still a year away.

The Red Rocket was to be prepared by Bill Collins, DeLorean’s colleague from the Pontiac days. In 1974 Collins had just completed overseeing the development of the downsized B-body platform for General Motors and was mulling more money at American Motors.

John got in touch about working on a sportscar. With gullwings.

They had worked with gullwings before.

The 1963 XP-798 project was a pre-emptive move against the Mustang. The longnose body housed a 421 V8 almost mid-front and was independently-sprung all round. It could have been a very nice driver.

It was a gorgeous shape. Except for those 20 inch doors and pathetic winglets.

The XP-798 was slated for the New York Auto Show in 1966 and given the name Banshee. At the last minute it was dropped from the show, and the first Pontiac Banshee was never actually seen by the public.

When DeLorean came calling, Bill Collins was driving around Detroit in his little Pontiac roadster.

In preparing to leave General Motors, he got to thinking about the XP-833. Back then, Collins and colleague Bill Killen had somehow managed to have the two functioning prototypes hidden away on site. If he was ever going to get his hands on it, now was the time.

Miraculously, Pontiac agreed to sell. Killen got the silver one. Collins got the V8.

The XP-833 was never a Banshee until 1973, when Bill Collins went to the design staff, retrieved some badges from the still-unseen XP-798 project and put them on both his and Killen’s roadsters.

Bill took the sportscar job for less money.

When he arrived in late 1974, he was greeted by the model on John’s table. Not likely a General Motors artifact, it was probably crafted for John by some Detroit professional in their off-hours. It’s a smart shape, though taking a lot from the Maserati Bora.

Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Maserati Bora.

But that was so 1971. By now, Giugiaro was folding paper.

As soon as he joined, Collins was on the plane to Italy with DeLorean. At the Turin Salon were two new shapes from Italdesign; the Hyundai Pony Coupe and Maserati Coupe 2+2 concepts rendered in Giugiaro origami. The three men got to talking.

John and Bill returned to the US, having decided on Giorgetto, but not having commissioned any work.

On his return, Allstate Insurance got in touch with John. They had been impressed with his talks on safety and standards during his recent public tenure. DeLorean was asked to prepare some papers around automotive safety, with a particular focus on the airbag. His work outlined savings that could be made, not only in lives but in dollars too, and Allstate was impressed.

They offered him $50,000 to develop the idea of a safety car that could be built in 1975.

DeLorean prepared a brochure.

Significantly, there is no mention of Allstate throughout the piece.

The arrangement DeLorean was seeking was one where he kept all the car’s intellectual property for himself. What Allstate was buying was the right to associate themselves with the product. Implied by their absence within the text; if Allstate passed on this document, it could then be presented to another party – another insurance company perhaps.

One thing’s for certain, this document was not for public consumption.

Not all the intellectual property was DeLorean’s.

In August 1972, the BMW Turbo was presented just before the Munich Olympics. Though an attractive car, it was soon overshadowed by the hostage crisis that unfolded that September.

What’s even less-remembered is that the BMW Turbo was a showcase in safety.

The concept itself had been rushed to fruition. With only six months to the Olympics, Paul Bracq and Bob Lutz were still to convince CEO Eberhard von Kuenheim to produce the company’s first concept showcar. It was finally approved, but it was to also feature safety. With a name like BMW Turbo, you’d hardly know.

It had a progressive crumple zone that was never actually tested and radar systems regulating the car’s speed that were never actually demonstrated. The principles were correct, but the BMW Turbo was more a compendium of possibilities.

All there was to show for its safety aspirations was a 4-page, 8-sided foldout brochure printed in English and German that was given away at European motorshows that year.

Paul Bracq himself illustrated the brochure. His distinctive style popped out of the saturated orange.

Whoever did the work for DeLorean, they were a professional.

The similarity doesn’t stop with the images. Both texts start with a negative appraisal of the way contemporaneous safety cars appear. Both point to the high-sill of the gullwing doors being a safety benefit. And so on.

The specifications and dimensions were different; the DSV being a larger car.

The gamble paid off. None of the senior actuarial-types at Allstate remembered the BMW Turbo, if they’d ever seen it in the first place.

DeLorean got the $50,000.

Giugiaro would have spotted the similarity in an instant. I doubt he was shown the whole document.

He received the specifications and dimensions in March 1975. I don’t know what he was to be paid, but there was a $65,000 bonus due when the cars entered production.

In 1968, James Hanson convinced Pininfarina to build him a bespoke car. It was a coupe shape on a Bentley T-series platform, and Hansen was hoping to sell the idea back to Rolls-Royce as a Bentley Continental. Pininfarina provided a fully functioning car ‘at cost’ for £14,000.

Giugiaro was only to supply a wooden mockup, so I would estimate his ‘at cost’ price on delivery to be about $30,000.

None of the early proposals look like the BMW Turbo. On the whole they are much closer to Giugiaro’s Hyundai concept than any other car.

With an option chosen, Bill Collins insisted on dealing with the rear pillars for visibility. A louvred appraoch was considered, but a clean glass aperture was the better solution.

When it first saw daylight, the wooden mockup looked wonderful from any angle.

How gratifying it must have been to lean against this most handsome and tangible thing.

The wooden exterior mockup and a capsule housing the interior mockup were handed over to Bill Collins by Giugiaro in June 1975. Collins asked for the technical drawings defining all of the surfaces.

A surprised Giugiaro replied; ‘I’m sorry Mr Collins, but it is the model that represents our definitive work, not any drawings. You’ll find that specified in the contract.’

Allstate was so pleased with the mockup, in late 1975 they gave DeLorean $500,000 for the construction of three functioning prototypes.

Curiously, when the DSV was first revealed that December in Road & Track, Allstate’s name was nowhere to in the article.

Allstate did get mentioned the next time. Quite a lot in fact.

That was February 1976, in Popular Science. After that they were never heard of again.

In October 1975, the DeLorean Motor Company was incorporated.

Transferred to the new entity was all the car’s intellectual property from the John Z. DeLorean Corporation at a nominal value of $3.5 million.

That nominal value was provided by Zora Arkus-Duntov.

The first of the functioning prototypes was still a year away. At this exact point in time, the only real assets they had were the wooden DSV exterior and interior mockups, and the newly-arrived Fiat X1-9 feasibility mule. Probably less than $100,000 in capital expenditure. Even if you sift Arkus-Duntov’s dollar figures through the layers of GM bureaucracy, there is still a large disparity left over.

The value of intellectual property.

In the end, over $150 million in investment and tax incentives would evaporate. Charges would be laid, but a heavily beaten John Z. Delorean emerged legally unscathed.

For further reading on this, I recommend Dream Maker, The Rise and Fall of John Z. DeLorean (UK title: DeLorean…). Two financial journalists, Ian Fallon and James Srodes, were on the trail before the drug scandal hit and map out a dense trail on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a compelling, dispiriting read. We see greats such as DeLorean and Colin Chapman of Lotus for their financial feet of clay – to put it politely.

We meet Roy Nesseth, above, a car dealer with convictions for fraud; he was to DeLorean what Harry Bennett was to Henry Ford. The conduct described is negligent at best and criminal at worst. Published only three years after On a Clear Day, this book makes for a sobering counterpoint.

The car changed.

A lot. From a body in ERM, to fibreglass to bare stainless steel. Engines from rotary to Citroen 2 litre to Ford Cologne V6 to Douvrin V6. A backbone chassis became necessary, leading to the decision to move the engine from mid to rear. From this carguy’s perspective, at that last point the vehicle became unacceptably compromised.

For an overview of the car’s development, I recommend Aaron Severson’s excellent piece at Ate Up With Motor.

The shape hardly changed.

At top, the original DSV wood mockup. Middle right, the first functioning prototype delivered in 1976. which follows the shape of the wooden mockup closely. In front of it, a pre-production prototype. Most of the change was in the driver window frame. At bottom, the 1981 DMC production model showing minor alterations to the nose. Nothing of the shape has been compromised, not even moving the engine.

The only thing that disappoints is the brushed metal finish, which doesn’t photograph as well as the painted wood.

Comparisons with the Esprit are inevitable. Its mid-engined dynamic hints at what the DMC could have been.

But this Giugiaro shape was designed around Colin Chapman’s chin-to-chest racing posture, and the DeLorean was a taller proposition, a gentleman’s express. That grille serves in some ways as a metaphorical necktie.

In a genuine coincidence, Giugiaro was asked to shape the BMW M1. Which he did, with a side treatment he had tried on the DeLorean.

The DMC was superior. One of Giugiaro’s better efforts for the time, but no iconic shape like the 300SL.

It achieved its icon status thanks to kitchen appliances.

When Bob Gale and Rob Zemeckis were writing the script for Back to the Future, the time machine was originally a fridge. Then they realised the possibility of children mimicking the movie, so they found something better. Only 4 years before, John DeLorean had gone down in flames after being arrested on drug trafficking charges. For the western world, it was the Edsel saga as seen on Miami Vice. The irony was well-milked for laughs. This classic piece of cinema still hasn’t aged.

Personally though, I prefer the shape without a Magimix sitting behind the cabin.

Until a few weeks ago, Paul Bracq was unaware of this document. I sent him a copy and he was not impressed with what he saw. Nevertheless, he was complimentary about DeLorean during his Pontiac years.

I don’t believe BMW were aware of it either, let alone their permission sought. I do believe it’s genuine, so to speak.

It was retreived from a website run by Tamir Ardon. The site is a deep repository of press clippings and documents relating to DeLorean, which gives me much faith in its provenance. Moreover, Tamir assisted Aaron on his AUWM piece.

It also matches a description given in the Fallon and Srodes book of a document as found in the Allstate archive. I’m fascinated to know how Ardon came across it.

Late 1975, and Bill Collins is demonstrating ERM to the interviewer. In front of him; a 1:12 scale-model of the BMW Turbo with the passsenger compartment removed. Those slightly oversized wheels give away its origins.

Bought off the shelf.

I want this guy to win.

He dresses like Laurel Canyon aristocracy, and has a gorgeous wife to wrap his arms around. For his Pontiac years alone he is an Immortal. And this car looks so full of promise.

His best years came in a cocoon. He flourished within the massive infrastructure of GM; coddled by the very system he rebelled against. Without that deep deep-pile cushioning, he had no way to absorb the many bumps on the carmaking path. He didn’t set out to crash, it just accelerated that way.

And yet you have to wonder what sort of man finds himself in a hotel room negotiating millions of dollars for kilos of cocaine; entrapment or otherwise.

In 1948, a 23 year-old John DeLorean was questioned by the FBI. It seems he had taken a Yellow Pages telephone directory, clipped out the ads and sent them to the advertisers with an invoice for the next year’s payment. These payments were to be made to a company registered under a name similar to Yellow Pages, but owned by DeLorean. Thanks in part to character testimony from his college professors, charges were never pressed.


My appreciation to Mr. Paul Bracq

DSV brochure and Prospectus page at Tamir Ardon’s site

Zora Arkus-Duntov letter at

Paul Bracq and the BMW Turbo

EfficientDynamics and the BMW Turbo

Mirror-polished DMC-12