Contributor Editorial: DeLorean Illustrated Detroit’s Myopic Thinking

John Z. DeLorean was among the most talented American automotive executives of his era yet made elementary mistakes when he launched his own car company. One could partly blame those failings on DeLorean’s narcissism and erratic behavior, but his basic approach also smacked of the short-term focus that permeated the American auto industry during the 1970s and early-80s.

DeLorean placed an emphasis on landing clever deals, such as a heavily subsidized factory in Northern Ireland. However, he failed to come up with anything vaguely approaching a sustainable long-term strategy.

To see what I mean, let’s pretend that things went exceedingly well during the company’s formative years. For example, the American economy was strong enough in the early-80s to support robust sports car sales, the DMC-12 was realistically priced and DeLorean managed to keep his launch costs down. Even under that rosy scenario, I doubt the company could have generated sufficient profits from a rear-engined two-seater which didn’t lend itself to higher-volume derivatives.

In a way DeLorean acted similarly to Bob Lutz during his subsequent tenure at General Motors: DeLorean built what he wanted to drive (or be seen in) rather than what would keep the factory lights on.

The DMC-12 was a much more sophisticated car than the Bricklin SV-1, but the latter actually had a better chance of long-term success. Bricklin’s economies of scale were less daunting because it used more off-the-shelf parts. Even more importantly, the SV-1’s front-engine, rear-wheel-drive platform had more flexibility to add models.

Of course, the Bricklin also had its own fatal issues, such as “the company’s inexperience working with Detroit auto companies, a host of unresolved design problems, company nepotism, supplier shortages, worker absenteeism and a series of rapid price escalations that saw the actual price of the car more than double over initial projections,” according to Wikipedia.

If DeLorean had been in charge of Bricklin, he might have had the managerial experience necessary to overcome many of those problems.

By the same token, the DeLorean Motor Company might have had a greater chance of survival if it had been launched by someone with the skills and temperament of BMW’s Herbert Quandt or Honda’s founder, Soichiri Honda. DeLorean products would undoubtedly have been less flashy, but they also would have been more likely to withstand the test of time.