SI Vault
Brock Yates
December 15, 1969
Chevy's enterprising boss, John DeLorean, builds sporty cars and lives life in a style unique in the annals of the giant automaker
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December 15, 1969

New Kind Of Wheel At Gm

Chevy's enterprising boss, John DeLorean, builds sporty cars and lives life in a style unique in the annals of the giant automaker

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It is no accident that only advanced trivia collectors and devoted readers of The Wall Street Journal can recite the names in the General Motors management hierarchy. Though hardly as bashful as Howard Hughes, the men who operate the world's largest corporation embrace a life-style that might be described as industrial monasticism. Sixtyish, conservative in a public sense to the point of austerity, they steer their corporate flagship through the reefs of commerce from the leather and mahogany bridge on the 14th floor of the General Motors Building in Detroit—that massive somber monument to mass production and enlightened free enterprise. These admirals of management are committed to the anonymous service of the Stockholders and the proposition that every man, woman and child in America wants a four-door sedan with vinyl roof and stereo.

And then there is John Z. (for Zachary) DeLorean. He strides through the staid wood and glass corridors looking more like Cary Grant than Alfred P. Sloan. General Motors' resident swinger (how he detests the word) is a sporting, contemporary man who is to the accepted image of the faceless auto mogul as rock is to Bach. DeLorean is a vice-president of GM and the general manager of Chevrolet—its biggest, most important division and the fourth largest business enterprise in the world in its own right. At 44 he is the youngest of the 11 men who have held that powerful job; the others all advanced to positions of great stature within the parent corporation. While a majority of them were executives from the classic General Motors mold, DeLorean is an individual of unusual range and tastes who really likes cars.

In Detroit an automobile is something you build and sell, not necessarily something you enjoy. Numbers, not nerve ends, are the registers of success in the Motor City. But the car nuts are on the rise, led by men like DeLorean and, until recently, his best friend, Semon E. (Bunkie) Knudsen—the man who has shaken Detroit down to its leaf springs with an executive Ping-Pong act that bounced him from the Olympian heights of the GM hierarchy to the presidency of the Ford Motor Company to the ranks of the unemployed, all in a matter of 19 months. DeLorean and Knudsen (whose father, Big Bill Knudsen, handed the original Henry Ford his resignation in 1921 and went on to the presidency of GM) are members of a small coterie of car cranks who have surfaced in Detroit management circles. Without them and men like Oldsmobile's general manager, John Beltz, Dodge's boss, Bob McCurry, and Ford's Lee Iacocca, the industry would radiate about as much excitement as the National Archives.

Now, John Z. DeLorean can't help it if he looks like a movie star—a Cary Grant among the Charles Coburns, as it were. Not that he in any way attempts to camouflage himself against the background of white broadcloth shirts and gray suits. Indeed, his exuberance has infuriated some of his rivals and has made him the talk of the industry.

One afternoon DeLorean lounged easily in his stylish Bloomfield Hills house—he has since moved to another—and talked about his view of the automobile industry. Elsewhere, auto executives dutifully slogged through 18 holes of golf or hunched resolutely over their desks. DeLorean could have been playing golf—his lean, 6'4" frame and a pliant swing have given him a handicap as low as four—but he has sworn off the game temporarily. "I promised myself I wouldn't play until I got Chevrolet where I wanted it, and that's going to take some time and effort," he said.

Where DeLorean wants Chevrolet is back in its traditional niche of dominance in the domestic car market. In 1962 about 32% of America's car-buying public saw the U.S.A. in their Chevrolets, but now this share of sales has dipped to under 25%, and it is no secret that America's motorized sweetheart is in for some revitalization. DeLorean was hardly promoted from his general managership of Pontiac last February to be a troubleshooter, but he knows better than anyone that if he can boost sales back to the old levels he will be a corporate hero of sizable dimensions—and all the more his own man, whatever the conservative hardliners might say.

"My personal life is my own business," DeLorean said. "I do what I think is right. I am myself." This means he often seeks his own friends and pleasures outside the industry's tight social circle in the posh suburbs of Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. "John has missed some really important parties, command performances, you might say, and that sort of omission around this town is viewed as a mortal sin," a friend said. DeLorean defends his absenteeism this way: "Since neither my wife nor I drink, we'd frankly rather take a twilight horseback ride or a late run down the ski slope than go to any party."

Following his divorce from his first wife, DeLorean was seen in the company of a breathtaking collection of young Hollywood actresses and New York deb-stars in fashionable hostelries both here and in Europe, thereby becoming, in the social columns of the Detroit press, the city's most eligible bachelor. Even business publications, much to his irritation, took note of his private life. Said FORTUNE: "DeLorean demonstrates that even in GM there is room for a swinger." "I get very tired of this 'swinger' label," DeLorean says with ire. "I am really a pretty conservative guy. Look, I generally skip lunch and work out at the Detroit Athletic Club gym or Vic Tanny's a couple of times a week. I read an average of a book a week and spend most of my free time writing, lecturing and working on the problems in our cities and country—poverty, social inequality, housing, training of the disadvantaged, things like that. Now, does that sound like a swinger?"

As he speaks DeLorean is relaxing in his starkly elegant living room, surrounded by expanses of brick and chalk-white walls covered with dozens of paintings he has collected from around the world. He is wearing a sport coat and black turtleneck sweater. His angular face is dominated by wide, penetrating eyes and a razor-cut crop of longish black hair. In the background the stereo is playing a Blood, Sweat & Tears album, and he talks of his tastes in music, which range from hard rock to the classics. Next comes a brief description of the two books he is writing, one a novel perhaps intended more for self-expression than publication, the other a treatise on how American industry can lend a hand in employing and improving the lot of the nation's minority groups. He is deeply concerned about the national mood and how he and the automobile business can make constructive improvements. While at Pontiac he spearheaded a number of pioneer programs to open his factory's doors to the hard-core unemployed. He is committed to social change. "I spend a lot of time talking with college students, and I tell them it's futile to drop out of a system simply because one doesn't agree with what's going on. What you do is get involved. Change things. Make them right. The world today is undergoing a tremendous neoreligious metamorphosis—perhaps the most significant movement in modern history—and it's being led by young people. They are intolerant of hunger and deprivation, of bigotry and war, and they're doing something about it."

He is no less emphatic about the automobile business. "The public taste has been ahead of the automobile industry for the last 10 years. And, you know, the general level of taste is improving fantastically, even in the little towns. People know how to dress, they understand food and music and things relating to the good life that used to be restricted to select groups in a few large cities. That's all changed now and we've got to grow with it."

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