I didn’t realise the DeLorean was a real car until at least a decade after I first saw Back to the Future. In the 1985 Michael J Fox hit, it is (as we all know by cultural osmosis, even if we have never seen the film) the vehicle Doc uses for his time-travelling experiments that eventually take Marty back to 1955 and into a situation with his mother that has only become more “Jeepers creepers, what were you thinking?!” over the years. Anyway. The DeLorean – all sharp yet streamlined angles in futuristic stainless steel, with its gull-wing doors and a glamorous, retro-sounding name – was so right that it never crossed my mind it could be real.
Much the same, it turns out, could be said of its inventor. For, of course, the car did exist, the brainchild of a gifted engineer who founded his own company to build this very machine. The new three-part Netflix documentary Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean traces his story with a level of detail that at times skates close to being exhausting as well as exhaustive, but manages to compel overall. If the man and his motives were never as brightly illumined as the facts of his story, it was not enough to spoil the eternal attraction of a classic rags to riches story – especially when it turns inexorably back to rags.
The film moves back and forth in time (I am avoiding the obvious jokes – please send congratulations to the usual address) as various contributors, from DeLorean’s ex-wife to the investigative journalists who first sniffed the hint of corruption around him, piece the story together. His Detroit childhood was abusive (a plausible but surely simplistic explanation for his adult thralldom to making quick money floated later in the film), but DeLorean was an excellent student whose engineering designs were hung on the walls of the city’s Cass technical high school for everyone to admire.
He went to work for Chrysler and then Packard, but made his name at General Motors, becoming famous within the industry for his engineering prowess, then for spotting a gap in the market for muscle cars and producing the Pontiac GTO. GM rewarded him by making him, at 40, the youngest ever vice-president at the company.
From there, it seemed as though the world was his oyster. Rich, successful and – after a little cosmetic surgery – handsome, he took himself off to Hollywood and shucked off the conservatism of General Motors. He became a household name and began to enjoy a gilded life. In 1973, he founded the DeLorean Motor Company, found the British government willing to invest £80m in a car factory to bring jobs to impoverished, volatile west Belfast, nabbed Colin Chapman from Lotus and started production on his gull-winged dream. He had, he said, 30,000 orders to fill.
He did not. Slightly too late in the film, we are introduced to DeLorean’s back catalogue – and far from all of it – of nefarious moneymaking schemes in pursuit of a fast buck, rather than the lucrative but long-term gains offered by his undoubted talent as an engineer. From his first minor scam in college to the purloining much later of a valuable patent from a fellow engineer who trusted him, all of his cons foreshadowed the coming implosion.
Investigative journalists were picking up the scent of hubris. His nemesis came in the form of a secretary, Marian Gibson, who took company documents to the press to show that the Northern Ireland project was essentially a giant fraud. Things unravelled quickly thereafter, culminating in DeLorean’s arrest in an FBI sting operation for his part in a multimillion-dollar cocaine trafficking plot. The rich, famous, handsome white man, as no one who has lived in the world for long will be surprised to learn, was not convicted. On other charges – of defrauding investors and evading tax by siphoning off millions of company dollars into his pockets – he was also acquitted.
There is nothing new or revelatory in this documentary, I suspect, to anyone with a working knowledge of DeLorean or his rise and fall. The overall story, and its ending, is one of the oldest in the world. But it bears retelling – and this is a stylish retelling, at least – if only because we don’t seem to be any closer to learning the story’s many lessons.