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Review | 'Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean': The most one-sided, holier-than-thou documentary on a guy who dared to be different

The documentary relies on the account of a journalist who is happy to blame DeLorean for being too ambitious, and having a lifestyle that was too showy.

July 31, 2021 / 07:25 PM IST
Archival footage of John Delorean, the famous GM engineer, in the new documentary about his life 'Myth & Mogul: John Delorean' (screen grab).

Archival footage of John Delorean, the famous GM engineer, in the new documentary about his life 'Myth & Mogul: John Delorean' (screen grab).

Remember when Marty McFly asks in Back To The Future: You made a time machine of a Delorean? And doc answers: The way I see it, if you are going to build a time machine that is a car, why not do it with style?

Now imagine the designer, the creator of the car. Tall, charismatic, sharp, sexy John DeLorean who dated Hollywood stars like Ursula Andress and married a supermodel.

He got surgery done to get a sharper jawline and worked out. Quite different from the other executives of General Motors, who wore dark suits and lived conservative lives, happy to take paychecks home.

DeLorean started his career at General Motors, and they gave him the stodgy Pontiac division. It was a car that older customers bought, and it was a steady if boring assignment. But DeLorean had other ideas. Why don’t we put a bigger engine in that frame? The sales guys laughed at him. They wanted him to fail, so they agreed to make 3,000 cars with a more powerful engine - as if to say, sell these and show us. DeLorean marketed it to the younger men and women whom he had overheard on the beaches as a car that had a tiger under the hood. That year Pontiac sold 32,000 of these cars.

DeLorean’s years at General Motors are chronicled way better in another documentary on Netflix titled Framing John DeLorean - that film has Alec Baldwin playing the part of the car maker. How his ambitions were thwarted time and again by ‘executives on the 14th floor’, and how John DeLorean was making so much money for the company that they reluctantly let him into the inner circle.

Can you contain creativity for long? John was making $600,000 a year. Had a beautiful family and lived in a stunning home. But he wanted to make a car that was different. Yes, the gull wing Delorean.

The docu series which labels itself as a crime investigation into John DeLorean and his business made me cringe. The filmmaker who was even allowed to go into the board meetings says, "I knew there was something wrong with him. So ambitious!"

But why should you be punished for being ambitious? That’s the American dream, isn’t it? To be super successful?

I understand why he invoiced his own company for what were his personal expenses, but look carefully at private owned corporations in India too. Aren’t CEOs taking zero salaries but living like Croseus? Take political leaders, they said that keeping Mahatma Gandhi in his loincloth was the most expensive thing at the time. How do leaders who preach simplicity drive around in Range Rovers?

DeLorean’s sin was to live life king size. And he was unapologetic about his sex drive and his need to look good and have a beautiful woman on his arm…

I watched in awe on YouTube the video of how he started the Delorean factory in Belfast. With bombs going off and Catholics and Protestants killing one another, the Delorean factory somehow brought peace to the war-torn town. Christians and Protestants had different entrances to the factory, but once inside, everyone worked calmly. That’s some kind of diplomatic achievement!

The way he got the British government to pay for his dreams was all wrong, but what chutzpah! The problem is when you get away with it once, you do it again and again, and then you are caught. As they say, this was John DeLorean’s hubris. He lets go of his long-term design engineer because Colin Chapman of Lotus seems like the best thing for car engine design. He is able to trade success for empathy. As long as he had money, he did not care whom he was trampling on.

Even here, the documentary relies on the account of a journalist who is happy to blame DeLorean for being too ambitious, his lifestyle too showy. I thought Hillel Levin came across just as bad as those other frogs in the well who were content with being there. One thing that John DeLorean did that’s awful is how he ran a car-safety product company into the ground because he could. The testimony from the daughter of a simple inventor who gave away the patents to DeLorean was rather damning.

Of course the most notorious thing in his life was being accused of drug trafficking. The documentary Framing John DeLorean plays out the events superbly. How the FBI uses seized cocaine to lure a desperate DeLorean by promising money after sale. The documentary clearly says, ‘The FBI has the use of colour cameras as you and I, but they use the black and white cameras so the footage looks sleazy and more like a sting.’

Reminds you of how governments operate everywhere, no? Well, a man goes to prison for two years, and when he’s acquitted, his life has already fallen apart. ‘Would you buy a used car from me?’ he asks the reporters who want to know what he is going to do next.

John DeLorean may have gone bust trying to make his dreams come true. But there’s that certain something that makes him special. It is a poem he has written under the nom de plume of William Deloreanspeare for his college magazine.

Know What It is To be An Engineer.

It is to have a dream without being conscious

You are dreaming, lest the dream break.

It is to be trapped in a terrible tower of pure science,

It is to live in a mean basic prison cell,

And regard yourself as sovereign of limitless space

It is to turn failure into success, mice into men,

Rags into riches, stone into buildings, steel into bridges,

For each engineer has a magician in his soul.

Today, if you were to buy a Delorean, in mint condition, it would be over $60,000. The man strayed the straight and narrow and wanted success faster than society cared. His son wants to throw a hand grenade into that car, his dad’s legacy, but very often dreamers die alone. But he built such a dream car!

Manisha Lakhe
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.