The Book of John (Z)
Although I didn’t ghost John DeLorean’s book about his time with General Motors, it was a big part of my life. This is my inside story of its creation.
On the morning of May 16, 1973 I sat down with John DeLorean in the modest offices of Grand Prix of America in Troy, Michigan. Background music to our conversation was the buzz of Wankel-powered single-seaters on the one-third-mile track outside, each lap timed and shown to the driver by built-in equipment. This was the business that Jack built, John’s entrepreneur brother who’d been developing the GP of America concept for several years. By the end of 1973 Jack was hoping to have as many as 15 tracks in operation in the United States.
Our talk took place less than a month after John DeLorean stunned the industry by announcing that he was leaving his post as General Motors vice president and group executive in charge of the car and truck group. In fact his resignation wouldn’t take effect until the end of May. But John wasn’t letting grass grow under his Gucci loafers.
DeLorean waxed with his habitual eloquence on the potential of his brother’s scheme. Driver-training students would be donated a few laps, he said, to help them learn how to handle a car—and perhaps give them the GP of America racing bug. “Our plan is to try to make it a major sport like bowling,” he said, “We’ll have regional runoffs, then national with a top prize of one million dollars. We’ll be developing a whole new breed of racing driver in America. All the top drivers in the world will suddenly be Americans!”
We were wrapping up our conversation when John dropped his bombshell. “I’m going to write a book about General Motors,” he said. “Who do you know who could work on it with me?” He was talking to someone who had left GM six years earlier and who had since built a fairly handy career as a free-lance journalist and author. Interested? I had to be although, as John joked, “If we do this neither of us will have anything to do with General Motors again!”
Seven-thirty on the evening of June 4th found me sitting down to dinner in Bloomfield Hills with John and the ravishing Christina Ferrare DeLorean. With the Watergate hearings starting their third week, John jested that he was going to look up Spiro Agnew’s press secretary in Washington: “I don’t see how Nixon can survive!” After dinner we settled comfortably on the Pink Porch to talk about the issues that John wanted to deal with in his book.
On Friday the 8th of December 1971, DeLorean told me, he’d spent an hour with GM’s president, Ed Cole, and vice-chairman, Tom Murphy. “They all but promised me the GM presidency,” he recalled, “if only I’d give up this championing of underprivileged people, minorities and the disadvantaged.” John pointed to a 1941 book by General Motors icon Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., Adventures of a White-Collar Man, in which Sloan advocated a more activist role for GM in the building of low-cost prefabricated homes to help overcome a national shortage of affordable housing. “A company can be responsible,” John said, “and still make money.”
DeLorean showed me a memo, dated December 17, 1971, that he’d written to Tom Murphy after their conversation. It set out a series of case histories, activities in which he felt that GM could be performing more responsibly without jeopardizing — indeed even helping—its profitability. In outline they were as follows:
1. The X-type frame used by several GM divisions in the 1950s, including Chevrolet, offered no side protection in an impact. John had introduced perimeter frames at Pontiac.
2. An Oldsmobile hood ornament. Ornaments were aggressive in the 1950s but those of Oldsmobile more aggressive to pedestrians than most.
3. GM’s failure to adopt widely the interlocking motor mounts that John had introduced at Pontiac and brought to Chevrolet in 1970 to end a visibly public plague of broken mounts and meandering engines.
4. Decision-making that led to the adoption of the first Corvair’s controversial rear suspension. All the relevant records had been destroyed, John said.
5. Design of the direct-air heater fitted to 1961-1969 Corvairs, which could admit carbon monoxide to the car’s interior if there were leaks in head or manifold gaskets. John knew that high-level Chevrolet engineers had argued against its introduction. Its faults led to a Senate hearing in February of 1972.
6. Programs introduced at Pontiac to offer job opportunities were criticized.
7. Advancing capital participation by black people, at the dealer level, was looked at askance.
8. John urged the matriculation of more black students at the GM Institute.
9. Controversially, DeLorean pushed the idea of marketing cars whose emissions were lower than required by prevailing standards, possibly as an optional offering.
10. He pressed for the curtailing of the huge engine range offered by Chevrolet so its engineers could do a better job on emissions.
11. Harking back to 1956, he recalled the setting of higher test standards for brake fade that led to vastly improved brakes.
12. Although GM had led in inventing and developing the air bag, it had dropped its further development and use.
13. Operating under GM’s radar, John had enhanced the countryside by having all Chevy’s billboards taken down. By not bidding on the contract, he took Chevrolet out of the business of making artillery shells.
14. Calling GM’s effort to build a modern steam car a “sham”, he criticized the Corporation’s failure to conduct real research and development on such serious advanced engines as the gas turbine.
Although something of a mish-mash, these were all serious issues that could contribute to the story that John wanted to tell about the way corporate decisions were made, for good and for ill. Looking back, I can see that such a memo would have conveyed to Tom Murphy that John DeLorean needed careful handling, that he had a lot of anti-GM arrows in his quiver that he could fire off if their relationship foundered. Having seen the memo, John’s lawyer said that he thought such revelations could lead to GM’s dissolution. I left the DeLorean home at 10:00 that night, my head spinning.
Two days after that dinner I was with my father, an experienced motor-industry executive, in Cleveland. When I described some of John’s criticisms of GM, without mentioning the source, he said, “It sound like some of the things Bunkie Knudsen has been saying.” If GM took umbrage, my dad thought, it could sue John but not me as co-author. He cautioned me against relying on John for my further future and stressed that the book would have to be objective and bulletproof in its facts.
On July 19th I wrote to John to say that I’d be willing to work with him on his book. I said that “I’d put every ounce of effort at my command into making it as successful as possible in its text, its truthfulness and its impact.” This was a response to DeLorean’s desire that it be “a non-put-downable life-story novel”, that it be “widely read or a great amount of its value will have been lost”.
I’d been in Michigan that summer but in August I went back to my home in New York. All went quiet on the DeLorean front while I started work on the Porsche history I’d contracted to write. In February of 1974 John contacted J. Patrick Wright, Detroit bureau chief for Business Week, suggesting cooperation on The Book. Pat delivered the resulting manuscript to Playboy Press in early September of 1975. DeLorean, however, had second thoughts. He withdrew approval of its publication, feeling that it would roil the corporate waters excessively while he was planning to produce a car of his own.
I learned about this when I met with John at his Bloomfield Hills offices on November 12, 1975. He said that Wright had been suggested by the publisher as co-author, probably a Little White Lie. The book had not met his aims at all, he continued, and he wanted to work with me to get it done right. He sent me a copy of the manuscript. To say it was “non-put-downable” was putting it mildly. Its contents were sensational and its presentation of them powerful.
On January 30, 1976 I sent John three pages of recommendations for restructuring the book “to moderate its negative tone—not its critical content—and stress the way it illustrates…a guidebook to profit through responsibility.” I said that John had to add credibility by owning up to some fiascoes on his own watch, such as the folding of Grand Prix of America and the tendency of his Pontiac Tempest to ground and snag its front crossmember on grade crossings. We could add some other costly skeletons in GM’s closet, such as its air suspension, Wankel engine and Turboglide transmission.
With Playboy stymied by John’s rejection of the Wright book, the idea surfaced that DeLorean write a business-related book that would be a separate entity. John suggested that I outline such a work, which I did on February 18, 1976. I adumbrated ten pithy chapters with the title—ironic in retrospect—Ethical Management. While I carried on with other projects for John, this one had no issue.
The idea of revising the text of the Wright book refused to go away. John wrote to me on May 3, 1976 to request “some specific revisions, additions and generally an outline for this book.” He had some specific objectives, including a flattering request for “that Ludvigsen magic”. I went back to the text and on June 21 produced a five-page analysis of exactly what had to be done “to give it the most positive effect possible, without taking away from the impact that it should have to be widely read.”
None of these changes was made. In September of 1976 John and I were still discussing ways to improve the book’s final chapter to put a positive spin on his plans for his own sports car. Finally, despairing of getting DeLorean’s approval and knowing that he had a hot property on his hands, Pat Wright self-published his original text of On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors in November of 1979. It was and is still a riveting read.
In the spring of 1981 I had an echo of these events. Sitting in my sixth-floor office at Ford of Europe in Brentwood, Essex I took a call from John DeLorean. He was involved with some legalities concerning the Wright book, he explained, and needed to be able to show that the book as published wasn’t what he wanted, that he’d made significant efforts to channel it in a different direction. Could I provide copies of the many recommendations that I’d made at his request? Thanks to the organizational skills of my former secretary in Connecticut, Judy Stropus, I could and did.
Thus ended my involvement with the literary ambitions of John DeLorean. But I still remember vividly my slack-jawed astonishment at that first reading of Wright’s raw manuscript in the winter of 1975-76, four years before it reached a wider public. It gave an unparalleled inside view of the damage a company and its people suffer when politics get in the way of decision-making. I recommend it unreservedly to today’s industry bosses.