DeLorean redux

Kevin Barry


1

The fade of a November day in Los Angeles, on West Century Boulevard, and the light fats up, and the last of the sun’s glare fixes on the plate-glass windows of the Sheraton Gateway hotel. Every ninety seconds or so, a plane takes off from LAX nearby. Homebound traffic slopes along Vicksburg Avenue and Avion Drive. The air has its typical, local heaviness, its gasoline spice. The flags of twenty-one nations hang limply from their poles on the Sheraton’s breezeless concourse. At a slight remove, on West 98th Street, in a rented Hyundai, parked discreetly beneath a beech tree, lurks the artist Sean Lynch. He is working a telephoto lens. He rings me in County Sligo and minutely describes the scene. Then a confession:

‘I’m worried about the valets,’ he says.

Lynch is learning the art of the stakeout. He must appear nondescript and innocent; he must will himself to recede into the shadows. Despite the suspiciously milling valets, he manages to keep a steady eye trained on suite 501 of the Sheraton and he shoots off some film. Suite 501 is slightly less than halfway up the twelve-storey building and a little in from its eastern edge. Lynch says it is difficult to date the hotel precisely, but it probably looks much as it did the last time there was a stakeout on 501.

That was on 19 October 1982, when the hotel was still known as the Sheraton Plaza La Reina. The stakeout concluded with the arrest of the car maker John DeLorean for the alleged possession of sixteen million dollars’ worth of cocaine. At the end of a long, media-saturated trial, the judge ruled that the FBI had engaged in entrapment and DeLorean was cleared of all charges. But the affair effectively signalled the end for the DeLorean Motor Company and its manufacturing plant in Dunmurry, Co. Antrim, outside Belfast. A lot of investors lost their money, among them the British government, Johnny Carson, and Sammy Davis Jr.

DeLorean – the name carries a charge yet for us children of the ’80s, evoking a species of burly entrepreneurship so redolent of that decade. Sean Lynch grew up in Moyvane, north Kerry. His father was a car mechanic and ran a garage on the main street there. The DeLorean sports car, the DMC-12, was always in the news. It was a flash of colour on our grainy screens, a little smirk of sexiness. ‘DMC’: DeLorean Motor Company; ‘12’: it was to retail for $12,000. The car’s trademark: the gull-wing doors that opened up, not out. Those of us of a certain age swooned at the smoothness of the movement, and at the car’s distinctive shape. It was at once boxy and curvaceous.

Lynch has for long months now been immersed in an ocean of DeLorean material. He has visited scrap dealers all over Ireland in an attempt to trace the old panels and moulds that shaped the DMC-12. He has commissioned an engineer in Co. Wexford to recreate the exterior panels. Next year, he will exhibit in London his reminted DMC-12, along with text, photographs and ephemera gathered during his investigation. He believes his artistic method is in many ways consistent with a historian’s practice. His DeLorean project is an attempt to document and preserve the kinks and nuances of a fading industrial saga. His work is at once playful and sternly attentive to detail. The Wexford panels are being made from stainless steel, as was DeLorean’s practice. During his period at General Motors, the American automobile industry was frequently accused of manufacturing cars that would need replacing inside a few years. By producing the DMC-12 in a material that would never rust, DeLorean believed he was making a car that could live forever.

Now an oxblood dusk settles on the LA airport zone, and it is past midnight in Ireland – the flood waters rise in the swamplands of the south Sligo bayou, and it is the end of a troubled decade in a troubled new century. But as Lynch and I speak, we are spiritually in the early 1980s. I ask him how long he intends to persist with the stakeout.

‘As long as it takes,’ he says.




2

A name can trip the charge on a life, a name can prophesize. In his novel White Noise, Don DeLillo has the child Steffie mumble in her sleep a kind of spooked mantra, which eventually is understood to be an awed repeating of the words ‘Toyota Celica’, allowing her father to riff on the naming of automobiles, on all those smooth, high-gloss, promise-filled ‘supranational names, computer-generated, more or less universally pronounceable’. John DeLorean was blessed with a supranational name, more or less universally pronounceable. If he hadn’t been born to woman, he would have been cast in stainless steel.

And of course it was in Detroit, the Motor City, that he was born. John DeLorean was the son of a Romanian father and a Hungarian mother. The father, Zachary, was a union organizer at Ford but his poor English held him back. He grew rancorous. The marriage became toxic and violent. A divorce came through when John was seventeen and he hardly saw his father again. After attending a technical high school for high-achieving students, John snagged a scholarship to train as an engineer. He joined Chrysler, then Packard, then General Motors. He was six foot four inches tall with movie-lot looks and bionic self-confidence. He rose quickly. For GM, he developed the Pontiac GTO, the first muscle car, an early ’60s icon – or at least he claimed most of the credit for it. GM made him head of its suave Chevrolet division. He started to hang with Johnny and Sammy: one imagines a finger-clicking, cocktail-snarfing scene. He ploughed through a string of good-looking wives. He invested in the New York Yankees. His name became legend in the lounges and foyers of commerce – one imagines tan leatherette, Eames-ish design, shagpile carpets. He cultivated a maverick air. He was made vice-president of GM and was on the fast track to become its president, to take the biggest job in the biggest industry. Then, in 1973, he quit.

DeLorean Motor Company was launched in ’75. He sweet-talked investors into a cheque-writing frenzy. He had the notion to locate his factory overseas, where subsidies and tax breaks might be had. A spanking new plant in the Shannon Airport industrial zone, just then being developed, was considered, but DeLorean believed the Irish government was asking too high a price for the lease. The Northern Ireland Development Company, a body bankrolled by the UK’s Department of Commerce to lure industry into the troubled province, stepped in and handed over approximately £100 million in equity investment, grants and loans. DeLorean unleashed the DMC-12, a superb vehicle, in 1981, just as a major US recession kicked in. The model bombed. In the twenty-one months before the Dunmurry plant was wound up, just nine thousand of the cars were turned out.

Desperate to raise more cash, DeLorean had meetings with a man called James Hoffman regarding a plan to invest the proceeds of drug deals in the company. Hoffman turned out to be an FBI informant. Come the Sheraton stakeout … the long trial … the eventual dismissal of charges. DeLorean then became a born-again Christian. He talked up a monorail project. He got involved with designing wristwatches. He fought forty-plus court cases that resulted from the car company meltdown. The DMC-12’s shape and image were preserved in the popular consciousness after the car was used as the time machine in Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 film Back to the Future, but DeLorean himself faded from view. He died in 2005, aged eighty, of complications from a stroke, in Summit, New Jersey. In 2008, a collaboration of avant-garde musicians styling themselves Neon Neon released a concept album based on John DeLorean’s life – it is titled Stainless Style. The artist Duncan Campbell has made a documentary – it is titled Make It New, John. The DMC-12 has featured in the video game Grand Theft Auto. There has lately been talk of a Citizen Kane-type DeLorean biopic. Meantime, a businessman called Stephen Wynne has bought the DMC-12 blueprints and name, and has started building the car again, on a limited basis, in Houston. There are DeLorean enthusiast clubs all over the world, all over the web – they speak of the DMC-12 with a glazed, religious fervour. In 2009, an ultra-hip Los Angeles streetwear company, The Hundreds, launched a range of T-shirts featuring the DMC-12’s image. I fear that as soon as I see one, I will buy one.

I have had some long conversations with Sean Lynch during the course of his DeLorean project, mostly in the Library Bar at the Central Hotel in Dublin. We have spoken of the name – those smooth syllables – and its mysterious, era-capturing resonance. As an experiment, in recent weeks I have played word-association with a selection of acquaintances who grew up in the 1980s. I have said the word ‘DeLorean’ and waited for their response. The response is universally the same. It is a broad smile.

DeLorean’s career followed a classical twentieth-century American arc: blue-collar beginnings, an ascent to riches and fame, then the scandal, then the fall. But see him at his apex, at the peak of his privilege and bluster: ‘I would rather be sterilized’, he said once, ‘than go second class.’ See him in his box-shouldered suit, with his blow-dry, his square jaw and his atomic grin. Hear the throb of power-synths, watch the gull-wing doors open up, not out. It strikes me now, as I type it, that ‘apex’ is such an ’80s-sounding word.

He should have named his sports car the DeLorean Apex.




3

The history of car manufacturing is beaded with DeLorean types – fast talkers with trust-me eyes and a mesmerizing timbre of voice. It has always been an industry that requires vast investor outlay, and vastly reassuring gentlemen to secure it. Ireland, in its eternal innocence, has many times fallen under the spell of such twinkling chaps.

According to Neal Garnham, writing in the Oxford Companion to Irish History, at least ten companies have been set up in Ireland since 1945 to manufacture cars from imported kits and blueprints, and the results have been ‘uniformly disastrous’. Several of these attempts are documented in John Moore’s invaluable book Motor Makers In Ireland, and some of the characters behind them are too irresistible not to be brought briefly to life here.

Edward Joel Pennington, of Moore’s Hill, Indiana, arrived in Dublin early in 1896. This was just months after the first occasion on which a car had been driven along an Irish road – by one Harry Hewetson, at a stately four miles per hour (one imagines cheers, caps being flung in the air, and the anxious gnashing of horse teeth). The country’s wealthier classes were quickly agog with interest in the shiny new machines. This made Ireland ripe territory for E.J., as Pennington styled himself. He had pretty much been run out of the States. Though an undeniably gifted inventor – he is credited with the creation of the balloon tire – he was notorious for talking up grandiose car-building schemes that never came to fruition. Word travelled much more slowly then, of course, and Pennington had by March of 1897 managed to secure some £250,000 from Irish subscribers to set up the Motor and Cycle Company of Ireland. A huge plant was to be built in Dublin and two thousand men employed. E.J. shipped in a couple of cars from the States and paraded them through the city with much fanfare. The Dublin investors, however, realized that behind the talk there was little substance, and bailed out, taking their money with them, before a brick was laid or a gear-shaft moulded. Pennington sulked away to Europe and to greater things. He set up plants in Paris, Berlin and Moscow. His most influential design was a self-propelled machine gun: a prototype for the modern tank. He charmed the newspapers into thinking it was a most positive development: the Belfast News Letter described the ‘Pennington War Machine’ as ‘a very important link in the glorious chain of universal peace’.

Alvin ‘Spike’ Rhiando was born circa 1917, possibly in Saskatchewan, possibly in Mexico: nobody knows for sure. He claimed to be the son of trapeze artists and that as a child he was himself part of the act. He took to midget-car racing, won a lot of races and moved to England in the mid 1930s to promote the sport there. He started designing race cars and various other mechanically propelled vehicles. He got involved with the post-war Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme, one of the loonier episodes from the last days of the British Empire, and he made money from it by selling earth-moving equipment to the Attlee government. In October 1948 he won the first ever 500-class Grand Prix event at Silverstone. He then designed a kind of roofed scooter and, to prove its durability, set off on an epic jaunt from London to Cape Town. He was rescued deep in the Sahara desert, from behind a large rock, in a delirious condition, by the French Foreign Legion. Fate would soon lure him to County Monaghan.

We must flash-forward a few years to the heady days of Taoiseach Seán Lemass and the First Programme for Economic Expansion. The boys in Leinster House were getting notions: we were going to get a car plant going in this country or we were going to die roaring in the attempt. They got into business with another American chap, an orthodontic grin by the name of Bill Curtis. Bill was boxing out of the San Fernando Valley. His plan was for a motor called the Shamrock – a flash set of wheels that would be manufactured in the Auld Sod and then exported to the States and marketed to Irish Americans. Spike Rhiando, it was decided, was just the man to design it. Spike came up with a kind of fibreglass, which he christened ‘rhiteglass’, and he magicked up a sporty-looking ride with tailfins and chrome plates. The Shamrock plant was to be located outside Tralee, and the nearby dock expanded to allow for high-volume shipping, but that plan fell through. A plant eventually got up and running in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan. It turned out eight Shamrocks, total, before it went out of business. One of these cars remains in the area. It is owned by a local gent who keeps it in a shed out back of his house. Sean Lynch has engaged in negotiations, unsuccessfully, to get a look at the thing.

It is believed that Spike Rhiando stayed on in Ireland after the Shamrock operation went to the wall. Nobody knows for sure.




4

There is no man so awed by the lore and mystique of motor cars as the man who cannot drive one. For drivers, the wheel and the gear shaft and the pedals become a part of their extended biology: instruments that are always answerable to one’s manipulation and will. A non-driver, by terrified contrast, knows that if he gets behind the wheel and turns the key, the car will immediately lurch up onto the footpath and kill a child. And so the car retains for us the awesome, latent menace of a metal death machine.

As you get older, you find that you have to make more and more excuses for not driving. My partner has to do all the driving and there is a circular conversation that has been going on between us – a ring road of a conversation – for the past ten years.

Her: When are you going to learn to drive a car?

Me: I’m not going to learn to drive a car.

Her (bitterly): Why aren’t you going to learn to drive a car?

Me: Because I’m not cut out for it. I have a poetical temperament.

Her (roaring): Apparently Seamus Heaney drives a fucking car! Apparently John McGahern used to drive a fucking car!

Me: I’m operating on a higher plane than those fellas.

Why did I never learn to drive a car? Impossible to say, precisely, but there may be genetic form here. My father was in his forties before he began driving. He passed his test, if memory serves, at the eleventh attempt. He arrived home, hot-faced with pride at the success, and to celebrate he took two of my sisters and me for a spin around the block. This was in a white Mini. We got two thirds of the way around the block and he crashed the Mini into a parked car.

On another occasion – early ’80s, a summer evening – we crashed into a Hiace van full of Rathkeale Travellers. I remember the Travellers roaring at us, and then the guards arriving, and the guards roaring at the Travellers; and I remember my father, a very quiet man, and the expression on his face. It was so rueful, as though to say: lookit now where driving has got me … fighting with guards and Travellers in the middle of the Childers Road, Limerick.

Car memories are all the more intense, I suspect, for those of us who cannot drive cars. Don’t ask me why.

I came closest to entering death’s dateless night in a car. Late ’80s, a summer evening. I am nineteen or so, a boy-reporter on a Limerick newspaper, and a press reception is called out at Bunratty Folk Park on the occasion of a visit by Kitty Dukakis, the wife of the failed Democratic presidential nominee. There is a fathomless trough of free gargle, and a colleague and I lace into it like a pair of lads who have never seen a drink before. We are quickly asked to leave the press reception. We go into Durty Nelly’s pub, next door, for a feed of pints, and we decide then there is nothing for it but to head into town and go to a disco. He drives. We are listening, I believe, to the first Pixies album, at full volume, as we hurtle at breakneck pace down the dual carriageway. We forget about the roundabout that marks the turn-off for Limerick. We do not slow down for the roundabout. We go directly over the top of the roundabout and we destroy the flower display that welcomes visitors to the Treaty City. The car goes up on its side wheels, as in a Lee Majors stunt. By the grace of some benevolent sky-god, there is no other traffic on the roundabout at that particular moment, and the car does not overturn, and we screech into the verge about fifty yards down the road. A wheel comes off but we are both unharmed. I get out and run back up the road to a Chinese restaurant to phone for a breakdown service. Such is my demeanour, I am immediately asked to leave the Chinese restaurant. I refuse, and I get involved in a brawl with the beefiest Chinese waiter I have ever seen (and I have seen a few). We go crashing to the floor, and we turn over a huge yucca plant, and the innocent diners scream and roar and upend their fried rice … at this point, the memory generously blacks out.

I often think about that night now. The further it recedes, the more I realize how haunted with luck I was to emerge from it sucking at the air still. Whenever I go home for a visit, I look through the local papers, and I see the death anniversary pages, and my eye is always morbidly drawn to photographs from that era, the photos atop the sing-song memorial verses, of teenagers who got themselves stupidly killed. I could have been one of those photos. I could have been forever remembered with ’80s hair.




5

Back at the Library Bar, in the Central Hotel. A grey December afternoon sullenly puts up with itself outside, and we are talking again of the DeLorean episode.

‘What happens’, says Sean Lynch, ‘is you get all this internet yickety-yak that builds up around a story, reams upon reams of it, but it never adds any real detail. It does the opposite, it flattens everything out. The least you can do is go back to the original sources and materials and try to understand the complexities.’

He has taken a special interest in how the Dunmurry plant was wound down. An auction was held there and the plant’s inventory was sold off. A company called Consolidated International of Ohio bought much of the equipment and some of it is in use still in the building of new DMC-12s at the Houston operation. A subsidiary company in Co. Carlow, Lapple, also had an auction. Lapple made the stainless-steel panels and the cast-iron tooling that essentially functioned as the shape-makers for the DMC-12. Scrap-dealers from all over Ireland descended in vans on the Lapple yard and they cleared it. This was 1984.

Twenty-five years later, Lynch worked the phones and drove the backroads as he made contact with as many of those dealers as he could trace. He wanted to see if any of the curvaceous old DeLorean shapes were still intact anywhere in Ireland. It was not looking good. A rumour that some pieces of the tooling were in use on a Carlow pig operation, as troughs, could not be substantiated. Though many of the dealers still remembered the material passing through their yards, they mostly told him that the old panels and tooling had been exported to Germany, Britain, and Spain, where they would have been melted down and then reshaped for new industrial uses.

Then, a breakthrough. At a scrapyard in Passage West, Co. Cork, it was recalled that a company called Emerald Fisheries had bought twelve large pieces of the tooling, and carried them by boat to Kilkieran in Galway Bay, where they were used to anchor the cages for a salmon farm. The Emerald operation had since gone out of business, but Lynch commissioned a team of divers to to see if the pieces could be traced. A series of reconnaissance dives took place in July of 2009.

The site was found. Nine of the twelve pieces had sunk down, irretrievably, into the soft mud of the seabed, but three remained perfectly visible about twenty metres below the surface of the bay, in a place kept clear of silt by the incoming Atlantic drifts.

A series of oddly melancholy photographs has been taken of the ecosystem that has developed around the old DeLorean shape-makers. We see the patina of red seaweed that has formed over the surface of the DeLorean tooling, and the three varieties of crab that reside in its nooks and crannies: the common eating crab (cancer pagurus), the green crab (carcinus maenus) and the very feisty swimming crab (homarus gammarus). There is also a lone but mighty specimen of a lobster in residence, a most regal chap, along with a weird, ghostly-looking sea-cucumber.

These photographs, these images, are new documents for the DeLorean history. They can be seen, Lynch says, as a perverse evocation of the picturesque tradition: nature as shaped by the actions of man.

He continues to work the DeLorean strand, and to search for hidden detail. Recent find: a 1981 US television advertisment – ‘Live the Dream’ – showing a DMC-12 cruising beside the ocean. The gull-wing doors smoothly rise, and then a slow dissolve, as the car morphs into a bird and flies away into the blue, blue sky.




Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 39 Summer 2010