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As John DeLorean, Alec Baldwin Revisits The Past Of A Car Made For The Future

You might know it best as the time machine in 1985's Back to the Future: The DeLorean was an unmistakable sports car with doors that flapped open like wings. Now, a new film starring Alec Baldwin explores the past of its automaker, who designed for the future.

John DeLorean rose through the ranks at General Motors, recasting Pontiac from a sleepy brand into one known for American muscle cars. He was forced out of GM and founded the DeLorean Motor Co.

It took years for DeLorean's company to put out cars that didn't sell. He stationed his factory in Belfast amid decades of civil and sectarian strife. And when a newly elected Margaret Thatcher yanked his subsidies, DeLorean looked for easy money to pay his debts. Federal agents busted him as he agreed to fund a scheme to sell drugs. He famously beat the charge, arguing he was entrapped by the FBI.

Baldwin says he sees DeLorean as a tragic figure. "He really was an immensely talented guy," Baldwin explains. "He had an enormously successful career at GM. He could have stayed that course and probably run the company. But John just had a contrarian streak in him — and his ego as well — he just found it very difficult to work for other people."

Interview Highlights

On DeLorean's vanity

I think that John is somebody who really believed that he was a hero. John was obsessed with his image. John wanted to — and did — stand out from other white-shirt executives in Detroit who were a little stuffy, and a little staid, and a little more traditional. John had open-collar shirts and lifted weights and had his hair cut a certain way. John was obsessed with his public relations. Obsessed. And I think he, right until the very end, I'm sure if you spoke to him, he'd tell you what he thought he did was heroic.

On DeLorean's sales skills

He was very smart. He was very shrewd. He was very manipulative. ... I spoke to [his ex-wife] Cristina very briefly ... she had not wanted to speak to people really that much involved with the film but she was very kind, and got on the phone with me — and she said John literally could walk into a room and talk anybody into anything.

On a conversation he had with DeLorean

In the early '90s DeLorean himself called me. He said, "Alec, it's John DeLorean here and I was wondering if you'd consider playing me in a part in a movie they're going to make about my life." And the film — there were a couple of them at the time — they all unraveled and none of them were made. ...

If that phone call was at all an indication of how John operated, then part of John's success was he asked people to do something that they were predisposed to do. He said to me, "You want to play me in a movie, don't you?" And I'm like, "Well, yes, I do actually." So John kind of knew people very, very well.

On driving a DeLorean to help prepare for the film

Stylistically the car's a beautiful car. It was ahead of its time. To me, the important thing is what might have been.

It was like a kooky car. Your body is almost like you're laying down like on a chaise or something — you're really reclined and your feet are out in front of you. That's not my favorite position to drive ... I like to drive sitting up.

But listen, stylistically the car's a beautiful car. It was ahead of its time. To me, the important thing is what might have been. Whether DMC [DeLorean Motor Co.] worked or not, I think John could have played an important part in American automobile manufacturing until all this went wrong.

It's kind of a warning to [SpaceX founder and Tesla co-founder] Elon Musk — a cautionary tale in terms of: Just do one thing well, you know? Just make the car. ... I'm of the school where you should just try to do one thing well.

On DeLorean's impression of himself as a hero

It's like a Robin Hood complex — by the letter of the law what I'm doing is wrong, but by the spirit, what I'm doing is benevolent. I admired some things about him, and I was obviously turned off by some things about him. ...

[Actors are] expected to look at people very closely and understand why they do what they do. And sometimes people do horrible things, or they do criminal things, they hurt other people, and they create a lot of wreckage in their path. But their intention is a good one, initially, and then things just become perverted. I think that's the case with John. ...

He loved his wife, and he loved his kids, and he really was a great father. But his ambition drove him to a point and he was backed into a corner. And then he started to do really, really terrible things and he should have stopped. But he didn't, and then all the wheels fell off — no pun intended.

Taylor Haney and Peter Granitz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey and Andee Tagle adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.