In the late 90s Honda had arranged for quite a few automotive journalists to fly to Toronto. We would then drive ourselves, in the soon-to-be-released Honda Odyssey minivan, to Honda’s factory in Alliston, Ontario. I felt I’d gotten lucky when I met my assigned co-driver; he’d had a front-row seat for the creation and destruction of the DeLorean Motor Company. Moreover, since he had been the head of PR for DeLorean, the media had gotten their stories about that maverick firm’s rise and fall from him. I’d never met or even seen John DeLorean in person, as he had resigned abruptly from General Motors seven months before I ever entered the car business, but now I had a chance to ask something about him of someone who had worked with him closely for a few years. My question was simple: What was John DeLorean really like in person?He took a while to answer, seeming to search for the exact right word to describe his former boss, but finally said, “He was … weird.”Now, “weird” covers a lot of territory. Was it John Wayne Gacy weird or Soupy Sales weird? But when I asked what he meant by the word, he literally struggled to give a better description of DeLorean. You could see the effort in his face; in the end he just added, “I don’t know how to describe him any better than that. You know, nobody was really close to him.”I had long since read DeLorean’s book, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, and he was one of my car industry heroes. While the executives had roundly trashed him and his accomplishments at General Motors after he had left the company, I knew firsthand that his book held fundamental truths. Now my only additional information about him was that he didn’t let anyone get close to him, and everyone thought he was truly strange. Well, if you read the biographies of many of America’s greatest business innovators, you will find their personalities described similarly. Certainly Spider Huff, one of Henry Ford’s most loyal early engineers and one who deserves much of the credit for the creation of the original Model T, said that, while he admired Ford greatly, there was always a dark undercurrent about him that always made Huff want to keep his distance. Reputation RescueWeird or not, one always has to wonder where General Motors would be today if DeLorean had risen to the presidency of the company instead of resigning in 1973. His early successes at GM are well known. First he created Pontiac’s Wide Track look in the late 50s, and then — in violation of the company’s policy on engine output vs. weight — introduced the Pontiac GTO in the early 60s. But DeLorean’s real success came at Chevrolet, when he had two major supporters at the company. Bunkie Knudsen, an executive vice-president of GM, was one. Knudsen’s father, Big Bill, had helped invent the moving assembly line for Ford, then jumped ship and brought GM into the modern age of automobile production. But Bunkie Knudsen left his position with GM to move over to Ford, only to be fired a year later by Henry Ford II with the infamous line, “Sometimes things don’t work out.”The other DeLorean fan was the legendary Ed Cole, who was president of General Motors. Cole, always one of GM’s most forward-looking executives, put DeLorean in charge of Chevrolet. Both men agreed that Chevrolet was in real trouble by the late 60s, having recalled nearly as many cars as it had built from 1965 to 1969. This was the period in which quality was quickly becoming an issue at GM, and Cole believed no one could straighten it out better than DeLorean. His first move was to push back the production dates for the updated Corvette and the new Camaro, to provide time to fix engineering and production glitches for those vehicles. At one Chevrolet plant he built a sub-factory at the end of the assembly line, where all of the defects on each newly produced car would be fixed before it was sent to dealers. When GM’s upper management found out about that relatively inexpensive move, they ordered his sub-factory closed and dismantled as too costly. Then in 1972 General Motors’ Assembly Division took control of the Lordstown, Ohio, Vega factory and immediately fired 800 workers, many of them line inspectors, to cut costs. In retaliation, the union there did its best to sabotage the vehicles its member workers were building. But in the GM world that year, the head of Chevrolet had little if any control of the fiefdoms in other areas of the company, although they all were supposed to be working together for their customers’ benefit. So, when the Chevy Vega came to market, the production work at Lordstown factory was so horrendous that GM had to revive DeLorean’s “defects factory” concept. Overall, while DeLorean did not solve all of its quality problems, GM’s reputation had improved enough that Chevrolet sold 3 million vehicles in 1971, almost as many cars as all of Ford. By 1973 the Vega would sell almost 400,000 units. Sell the Sizzle, Not the SteakDeLorean claimed he lost his faith during a presentation of the new 1972 product lineup at GM; as he was relating all of the cars’ new features and technology, he realized that what he was saying was simply nonsense. He took the position that GM was selling hype and not reality anymore; while the corporation could really be making true game-changing vehicles, because of bureaucracy and cost cutting it was content to sell the same old product, year after year. He had a point there. It is said that some companies are just too big to be manageable. But that’s not true; GM under Alfred Sloan had been extremely well run. Of course, back in the early 1920s, before Sloan’s reforms, when Big Bill Knudsen left Ford for GM a journalist asked how he planned on improving Chevrolets the next year. He replied, “We’re going to put nets under the cars to catch all of the bolts that fall off of them.” In that way he didn’t sound much different from John DeLorean 46 years later — but the company they worked for had changed. In the 1920s, no one at GM got mad at Knudsen for that attempt at humor over a very serious subject. Nor did anyone consider him not “a team player” for making that comment. Most important of all, GM backed him completely in fixing the production lines and improving the engineering to where GM’s quality was no longer in question. John DeLorean, or anyone else, would never have that level of support, because the men running GM during his tenure were not Alfred Sloan. GroupThink Doesn’t Work DeLorean had one other brilliant observation about modern corporations and their trouble with GroupThink, or GM’s committee system of running the company: “Take a handful of high level managers, all of whom know the right thing to do, and put them into one group — and consistently they will come up with the wrong answer to any problem.” Years later many corporate analysts would validate that truism.No one knows where GM would have gone if DeLorean had been made president. But I suspect the real reason that he left so suddenly in 1973 is because DeLorean knew others, at least in the GM culture of the time, thought he was … weird. © Ed Wallace 2013Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: email@example.com, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.