The view from the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland as I stood outside the front door was, in a word, miserable: rain poured down by the ton as the clouds all but obscured the view out into the waters from the Harland and Wolff shipyards, the site of the birthplace of one of Ireland’s most infamous claims to engineering overestimation. At over 882 feet long, the great ship was one of the three crown jewels of the newly-minted Olympic class of ships commissioned by the White Star Line. Between 1909-1912, RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic were constructed side-by-side, employing many of the locals for the construction of the great ships. During construction, six men were killed during the actual building and a seventh was killed at the Titanic’s launching when falling wood crushed him. In short order afterwards the ship was fitted and kitted, taken to sea to perform trials, and finally, in April 1912, deemed seaworthy and ready for passenger service, the ship left out of Southampton, England. As she left the port, the water displacement caused by her massive size created a rise and fall in the harbor that was so drastic that the mooring lines of the S.S. City of New York snapped, causing her to swing out stern-first towards Titanic. The two ships missed a collision by about four feet. After port calls in Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland. From there, you know the story: late in the night on April 14, 1912, Titanic strikes an iceberg, takes about two and a half hours to sink with great loss of life and isn’t seen again until 1985. What you don’t hear much about is what happened in Belfast after the sinking. The shipbuilders in Belfast took the news of the sinking like a swift kick to the gut…their work, that men had died for, that they had toiled on proudly for four years, was gone, not even completing one trip. Unfortunately, that isn’t the only sad story for Belfast when it comes to manufacturing. In the late 1970’s a tall and slightly over-tanned American came across the Atlantic with an offer, to build an all-new sports car that he believed would be successful.
Why Northern Ireland? Because John Z. DeLorean, the fastest and youngest rising star that General Motors had ever seen up to that point, had a vision. In it, he wanted to produce his dream of a stainless-steel sports car, while at the same time winning over an area of the world that had high unemployment, where he could easily build a factory, create a workforce and build his dream swiftly. The problem that he didn’t take into consideration was that nobody in Northern Ireland had any experience building a car of any type. But the people around Belfast were sick of the fighting and unemployment that The Troubles had brought and DeLorean was talking his way through red tape and financing issues in order to get the plant going with ease.
The two biggest issues that DeLorean faced as he tried to get a factory going were capital and a location for manufacturing. He had managed to get dealers in the United States to invest into the DMC sales network, which in turn made them shareholders in the company. He also managed to get business loans from Bank of America and with his convincing ways, managed to get several friends to invest as well, including some heavy hitters like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis, Jr. But even with that money socked away, he didn’t have nearly enough to get the factory going. He courted with several countries that had wanted to bring auto manufacturing in, including the Republic of Ireland, who shot him down after reviewing his plans. He was close to signing a deal which would have taken the plant to Puerto Rico when Northern Ireland offered up a sweetheart deal and about $120 million. The United Kingdom saw the DeLorean plant as a way to curb the violence attributed to The Troubles that was ravaging areas around Belfast at the time…if the unemployed got some work, it would show promise and a forward motion for the economy and could possibly temper down the violence. DeLorean left the Puerto Ricans high and dry in a hotel and hopped a plane to sign the deal. The plant was built in Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast pretty much on the split between Catholic and Protestant areas (the two sides fighting each other in The Troubles) and DMC started hiring like there was no tomorrow. Originally slated to begin production in 1979, the DMC-12’s production schedule was shoved back until the beginning of 1981 due to budget overruns and delays with the completion of the Dunmurry factory.
On January 21, 1981, the first stainless-steel DeLoreans started rolling off of the assembly line and onto trucks, which left Dunmurray and went straight to Belfast’s port to be shipped to the United States. Even by the workers’ standards, the first 400 or so cars were horrible, with the kind of quality that one would joke about with a Trabant: panel gaps were best described as “variable”, the alternators weren’t up to the task of keeping up with the draw, and the gas struts that pushed the signature gullwing doors upwards failed, or were at least severely outclassed by the weight of the door themselves. The cars were so bad that outside production facilities had to be created to intercept the cars as they came into the U.S., giving DMC the time needed to fix the cars before they were distributed to dealerships.
By 1982 things at the factory were much better, but financially, things were going south fast. DeLorean’s cash was drying up and the U.K., now under the new regime headed by Margaret Thatcher, was not going to assist the company any more. A special investigator had been appointed to investigate claims that John Z. was skimming profits off of the top in order to finance a fancy lifestyle, though the charges were ultimately dismissed. When the cash flow finally stopped, the first shot of problems started to occur. DMC furloughed workers as DeLorean went on a manic yet unsuccessful fundraising campaign, desperate to inject more money into the business. The end came with what is more widely known of the story: John Z. in a hotel in Miami, talking with men with suitcases and sunglasses, all while being secretly filmed. Caught in an FBI sting, DeLorean was charged with trafficking cocaine, and throughout 1982 was in courtrooms and on the news, defending his actions and car companies. Back in Dunmurray, the British government had seized the factory and was preparing to liquidate. Stamping dies, tools, and the lot were sold at auction. Contrary to legend, the stamping dies were not sunk in any sea around the British Isles by an infuriated government, but instead they were sold for scrap value. The dies that did end up at the bottom of the ocean had been used as weights for a salmon hatchery. Only a skeleton crew remained at the plant to assemble the last few unfinished cars…the remainder of the parts and pieces were sold off and became parts stashes. At the end of 1982 the Dunmurray plant closed, leaving over 2,500 people out of a job.
DeLorean was cleared of the cocaine smuggling charges after claiming entrapment, but his reputation was dead in the water and even he himself knew it, quipping, “I mean, c’mon…would you buy a used car from me?” during a press interview. He never did return to his former glory. He spent the rest of the 1980s, and much of the 1990s in courts, defending his actions during the tenement of the DMC days. He never returned to the United Kingdom, where he would have surely been arrested, since the U.K. government never saw the repayment of the $120 million loan. At the time of his death in 2005, DeLorean had been working on a successor to the DMC-12.
It was never realized.
Below is a show produced by the BBC called “Car Crash”, which told the story of what happened with DMC from start to finish, complete with the words of the workers who followed DeLorean’s story from start to finish, who saw hope when the factory came to Dunmurry and who were left out in the cold on the bad side of locked gates when it was all said and done. These guys show a lot of pride in the car they built and just like John Z. always insisted, if the company had just a couple more years, DeLorean Motor Company stood a chance of actually making it.