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John DeLorean Was Arrested on This Day in 1982

And the car industry has never been the same

Audrey Davis
October 19 2021

Plenty of car companies have crashed and burned over the years, but few have crashed as quickly and spectacularly as the DeLorean Motor Company.

Delorean DMC12: Pyntofmyld/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

On October 19, 1982, automotive executive, DeLorean founder, and walking ‘80s stereotype John DeLorean was arrested for cocaine trafficking, marking the end of an illustrious career that brought us one of the car industry’s most notorious failures. But John DeLorean was more than just a big chin and a bad idea – he was also a talented, charismatic designer and engineer before his ambitions got the better of him.

DeLorean’s fatal overconfidence shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise, considering how quickly he was able to make a name for himself in the industry. After his early days of rising through the ranks at Pontiac, he became the division’s chief engineer in the 1960s, when he redefined the brand as sporty, muscular, and cool. Any gearhead who’s a fan of Pontiac classics like the GTO or Grand Prix has DeLorean to thank, but he wasn’t destined to stay at General Motors forever. The development of the ill-fated DeLorean Motor Company brought with it a host of new problems for the business tycoon, marring his legacy and changing the industry forever.

John DeLorean’s ‘son’ with a new version of the iconic car: BelTel/Twitter

The DeLorean was marketed as a powerful sports car with a forward-thinking design, but in reality, its overall performance capabilities were seriously lacking. And from a financial standpoint, DeLorean was also relying far too heavily on loans from the British government, which were secured in exchange for building a DeLorean factory in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. So, when new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided that the gravy train had left the station, John DeLorean started to get desperate.

Although few in the ‘80s were surprised to learn that someone like DeLorean was into cocaine, the revelation that he had been arrested in an FBI drug sting in 1982 still came as quite a shock. His high-profile cocaine trafficking trial in 1984 launched the career of Hollywood power lawyer Howard Weitzman, who successfully argued that the FBI had set up DeLorean with knowledge of his financial vulnerability. A not guilty verdict spared him from any jail time, but it certainly ruined the once-great entrepreneur’s reputation.

Doc and Marty checkin’ out the whip: Back to the Future/Universal Pictures

Doc and Marty checkin’ out the whip: Back to the Future/Universal Pictures

These days, it looks as though the auto industry has learned a thing or two from John DeLorean’s mistakes, and also from his greatest (unintentional) triumph. Ever since the DeLorean was chosen as the time machine used in the Back to the Future films, essentially saving the car’s reputation, other brands have been bending over backward to score the same kind of product placement in movies and TV shows. And, as for DeLorean the person, his story is now seen as a cautionary tale, and auto execs these days are careful to never turn themselves into larger-than-life celebrities. Aside from Elon Musk, who made his fortune in tech before cars, can you name the CEO of any major automaker today? Or, if you can, would you recognize them on the street? If you said no to either of those questions, John DeLorean is the reason why – and honestly, we’re probably better off.

Related: The History Of NASCAR Is Soaked In Booze And Danger ​



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