A dazzling young woman enters the room and curls up beside DeLorean. Kelly Harmon DeLorean, age 21, is the most toothsome morsel of gossip in Detroit. She is his bride of a few months and she has set nasty old mouths flapping harder than at any time since Henry Ford II married Christina Austin. The daughter of the University of Michigan All-America Tom Harmon and the actress Elyse Knox, she is the embodiment of sweet, unspoiled American beauty—a conglomerate of good genes. She is a skier, a swimmer, an excellent horsewoman, a fledgling artist. She is gentle and innocent, without vanity. Is it not enough that DeLorean is a multitalented captain of commerce? Must he have the uncrowned Mrs. America, too? The scene is unreal.
But do not begrudge DeLorean his beautiful wife. Any man is a tryer who undertakes a two-week crash course in horsemanship, gets bucked off a stallion riding bareback and cracks two ribs trying to surprise his fianc�e with his riding prowess. And any man who at age 43 can win a $1,000 bet by running five miles nonstop is real.
DeLorean's record at General Motors is laced with triumphs. In 1956 he left the floundering Packard Motor Company, where he was chief of research and development, to become the boss of advanced engineering for Pontiac. He was recruited by tough-talking Bunkie Knudsen, who had been given the challenge of bringing the creaky Pontiac Motor Division up from mediocrity. At that time rumors were flying around Detroit that GM intended to cancel production of the Pontiac entirely. "It was unbelievable, everything was so old-fashioned," DeLorean recalls. "Bunkie persuaded me to interview for the job, and I drove out to Pontiac and talked with the man who was going to be my boss. There he was, sitting behind his desk, wearing a pair of those old high-top leather shoes and packing a big wad of cigars in his shirt pocket—the prototype old-fashioned auto man. I called Bunkie back and said, 'No, thanks.' But Bunkie implied that some big changes were planned for Pontiac and talked me into taking the job. When I went to work the old guy in the high shoes was gone.
"Knudsen quickly found that the Pontiac had turned into an old-ladies' car. Market research indicated that it had no image whatsoever—that it was a nameless blob to the American public." Working with his chief engineer, a smooth, capable ex- Oldsmobile man named E. M. (Pete) Estes, and DeLorean, Knudsen set out to revitalize the division.
In a short while he had zoomy, powerful "wide track" Catalinas running on the Southern stock-car circuit. California speed specialist Mickey Thompson gunned his Challenger I land-speed record car, powered by four Pontiac V-8s, over 400 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Pontiacs driven by such legendary racers as Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Marvin Panch won most major stock-car races in the nation, including the Daytona 500 in 1961 and 1962. In 1960 an advertising executive on the Pontiac account, Jim Wangers, won top stock eliminator honors in major league drag racing, driving a great bellowing Catalina. At this point the flashy Catalina and Bonneville Pontiacs were the toughest, fastest cars anybody could buy in an American showroom, and sales were booming. Knudsen and his band of racers at Pontiac were heroes. In 1961 Bunkie was rewarded with the general managership of Chevrolet, while Pete Estes took over at Pontiac. DeLorean thereupon was promoted to chief engineer.
Then a 1963 edict from the GM corporate leaders banned all General Motors divisions from participating in racing. Realizing that Pontiac's new reputation was built on high performance, DeLorean and Estes were left with the chore of keeping the Pontiac name in front of the skyrocketing enthusiast market without being able to race. Enter the GTO.
What happened was that DeLorean put a thumping 389-cu.-in. V-8 engine into one of the newly styled Pontiac Tempest economy models. Installed in a relatively light (3,200 pounds) chassis and fitted with three carburetors, the big engine provided blinding acceleration, and the car handled well, too. DeLorean immediately recognized its potential as a low-cost ($3,200) "supercar" for the youth market—a sales concept that was just becoming evident. Playing on the rising demand for racy European cars in America, he brashly named his creation the GTO (for Gran Turismo Omologato, after a chic Ferrari coupe that had been raced a year earlier).
"We could manufacture it with a small gross investment," says DeLorean, "and we went ahead, although a number of people in the division and the corporation were skeptical." So skeptical, in fact, the Pontiac sales manager wagered DeLorean that no more than 5,000 GTOs would be sold. He was a loser from the start. Within 90 days of the introduction, every car buff in the nation was eyeing the GTO, despite the fact that not one buyer in a hundred had the vaguest notion of what the name meant. By the end of the model year the entire production run of 31,000 GTOs had been sold.
Then Wangers, who was to become the unrivaled prophet of youth marketing in Detroit, began to hit his stride. Realizing, with DeLorean and Estes, that rival manufacturers were plunging into the performance market with bigger, hotter cars than the GTO, he launched a textbook sales promotion campaign that included the pop hit Little GTO, recorded by Ronnie and the Daytonas. While bypassed in the Grammy awards, Little GTO got to No. 3 on the charts, sold 1.2 million copies and got played an estimated seven million times on the nation's rock radio stations—ground zero for the GTO market. At the same time Wangers flooded the nation with GTO shoes, emblems, T shirts and more records until every kid from Portland, Me. to West Covina, Calif. was stuffing his piggy bank in anticipation of the day he could purchase a GTO. In 1965 65,000 GTOs were sold. The following year sales soared to 83,000.
Pete Estes moved on to the general managership of Chevrolet in 1965, when Knudsen advanced to the GM corporate level. Maintaining the linear progression, DeLorean took the top spot at Pontiac and drove even harder to keep the division's performance image alive. "John is a genuine automobile enthusiast," says one of his associates. "In fact, he is a purist. He hates to compromise, to put unnecessary gimmickery on a car, and that sometimes makes life difficult for him and those around him."