ARTS AND FEATURES — 03 April 2013

 

BACK TO THE FUTURE

 

 Sean Moriarty

 Thanks to its appearances in the cult 1980s Back to the Future movie trilogy, The De Lorean DMC 12 is one of the most recognisable and iconic cars in the world.

Its Mercedes-Benz 300SL inspired gullwing doors and it sleek stainless body-shell makes it one of the most cosmetically attractive cars ever made.

The story of how American automotive legend John De Lorean enticed millions of pounds from the British government to get his Belfast motor plant up and running is one of the great  motor industry stories of our time.

The former General Motors boss brought motor manufacturing to the north of Ireland and for four years, up until January 1983, enabled it to believe it might be a player in the global automotive industry.

Now thirty years later on and for the first time, a factory insider tells the inside story of how the De Lorean Motor Company helped shape the history of Belfast during one of its most difficult times.

Birmingham-born Nick Sutton was recruited from the Reliant Motor Company (manufacturer of the three-wheel vehicles made famous by Del Boy in TV sit-com Only Fools and Horses) to work in the DMC purchasing department – dividing his time between Belfast, Coventry and the Lotus factory in Norfolk which had a pre-production development deal the new company.

Sutton was one of the first recruited by the company and one of the very last to leave the factory when it eventually shut its gates in 1983 after some 9,000 cars were built there.

By then the company owed millions to the British government from grants and loans.

De Lorean himself was fighting all sorts of accusations, the least damning of which was that he trafficked drugs to keep the factory going (he was later acquitted of this charge) and misusing taxpayer and company money to fund his own cocaine and champagne-fuelled “jet set” lifestyle.  He refused to live in Belfast during the company’s time there and commuted almost daily from a five-star hotel in London.

Sutton says there were two very different John De Loreans.

De Lorean, who died from a stroke in 2005 aged 80, is still revered and loved in Belfast where he came close to solving the city’s drastic unemployment problems and where Catholics and Protestants worked peacefully side-by-side.

But his management skills and lust for money left a lot to be desired according to those who dealt with him in the boardroom.

Sutton told the Irish World: “I think the people on the factory floor, even now, would say he was the second coming of the Messiah. You could not say anything bad about him to anybody who worked in the factory. But the further up the tree you went and you could see the mistakes he made like the greed for over production and the greed to sell the company. We [as managers] saw all that.”

Mistakes included trying to start production 18 months after the first brick was laid during the construction of the factory. It was this impressive goal that convinced the British government to part with the money but it was an altogether impossible task given most established car companies took three years to achieve the same. To add to the issues        DeLorean insisted on changing the basic design of the car two months in start of the project which in turn had effects on the factory’s tooling and spare parts’ inventory.  Later he wanted to double the factory’s production, although cars were piling up in Belfast docks and not selling stateside, DeLorean believed that higher production figures would generate a windfall during his planned stock market floatation.

Still the factory went ahead at a time when unemployment was a huge problem in Northern Ireland.

Political commentators, at the time, felt that boredom was driving many to sectarian violence and the arrival of the American car giant was going to solve more than one problem.

It was almost as if De Lorean personally symbolised the troubled Northern Ireland.

The area was divided by sectarian violence for decades until the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

The 72-acre plant in the city united many by virtue of creating jobs for thousands of unemployed men and women

“De Lorean as a guy was very personable, he was one of the very few of that stature who would go around the factory and shake hands with people on the shop floor.

“He did a magnificent job from that point of view,” added Sutton.

“There was a lot of controls in place, if you walked in to the  Harland and Wolff shipyard in those days, you would have seen pictures of the Queen, red-white-and-blue flags and Rangers Football Club jerseys.

“We did not allow any of that in to the factory. The only things you could put up on the wall were literature or pictures that we supplied as a management team. You were not allowed put up anything else or decorate your desk with any colour or religious symbols.”

It took northern Irish politicians another 15 or so years to follow suit and the recent flag furore at Belfast city hall proves that symbols still cause serious problems in an area trying to shed its bloody past.

Sutton himself is an example of how the province has moved on.

He admits in the book that he was initially very reluctant to draw attention to his English accent when he worked in the city and recalls several close calls in pubs and hotels in the city.

But he also met his wife at the factory.

Phyllis Johnston came from the nearby Catholic housing estate of Twinbrook and was Employee number 21 at the ill-fated plant.

They are still happily married 30 years later, still live in Belfast (after a brief period in England following the factory closure) and have three grown-up children.

For Sutton the closure of the factory left a bitter taste and for years afterwards he tried his best to disassociate himself from the whole sorry saga.

As a 29-year-old engineer at the start of his automotive career he was given the chance to get involved in a start-up project and work with some of the most respected men in that business.

But after experiencing what he called  De Lorean’s greed and management incompetence he wanted to forget about it all start a new job with Lotus cars and get on with his life.

“For the first 25 years I was very annoyed with De Lorean and anything associated with it. Each time I mentioned I worked there, either in a pub, or at a dinner table, I was subjected to hoots of laughter, the usual drug smuggling jokes, and lots of ridicule, so I never spoke about it.”

Four years ago he was invited to attend an owners’ club rally in Gettysburg in the USA.  This rekindled his interest in the De Lorean Motor Company, and prompted him to write the book, although he admits he was very reluctant to travel when the invitation first came.

He said: “I did not want to go but my wife did and she convinced me. I arrived and saw all those cars in the sunshine. I was smitten again. It really was fantastic. The owners spoke about their cars in a professional way. There were no drug jokes at all. They asked me about the factory because nobody knew anything about it. That is when I realised there was a big hole in the history of the company so I decided to write it down and that started four years ago.”

The net result is The De Lorean Story: The Car, The People, The Scandal – a  256-page story of life inside the factory. This book will appeal equally to fans of the history of Northern Ireland and automotive historians.

It is available from all good bookshops and direct from Haynes at www.haynes.co.uk call 01963 442030, priced £17.99

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bernardp

Editor of the Irish World

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