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DeLorean Progress Report

Essay

John DeLorean was arrested on 19th October 1982 for alleged possession of 16 million dollars’ worth of cocaine at the Sheraton La Reina hotel, close to Los Angeles airport. While cleared of all charges by 1984 after DeLorean was judged a victim of FBI entrapment, the incident meant the effective end of his fledgling sports-car factory in Dunmurry, outside Belfast. With substantial financial investment from the British government, and individuals such as Sammy Davis Junior and Johnny Carson, DeLorean had designed a new car, built a factory and employed over 2,600 workers, producing the DMC-12 model. Technical flaws during car production, poor sales in the United States and an upcoming criminal trial all contributed to bankruptcy and closure of the factory after less than two years of operation. Despite such obstacles, the car was considered valuable for its unusual design incorporating gull-wing doors and a stainless steel body,later becoming a popular icon of the 1980s, functioning as a time machine in the movie Back to the Future. Today, many enthusiasts worldwide maintain and drive the vehicle.

The incidents and events around DeLorean’s enterprise and demise attracted an amount of media attention and were well known. He appeared in magazines such as Playboy,Time and People, frequently portrayed as the maverick entrepreneur. Of many publications about his life and business, one might note that The Sunday Times published a book for its readers containing the entire FBI surveillance transcripts of his cocaine entrapment. Cinema Verité director D.A. Pennebaker’s 1981 documentary film DeLorean detailed moments from the boardroom to the factory floor. DeLorean died in 2005, before Hollywood announced an upcoming movie based on his life will be produced: ‘It’s almost like an updated Citizen Kane story of the great American entrepreneurial hero and how it all went wrong.’(1)

To further an understanding of this legacy, research was undertaken on rumours regarding the last chapter of DeLorean’s venture. I took a particular interest in comprehending how the actual production of the car wound down. As per usual with bankruptcy, a public auction took place in Dunmurry in May 1984 where the entire inventory of the factory was sold off. Much of this material was exported to the United States. Läpple, a Carlow-based subcontractor, was responsible for making the stainless steel panels that form the exterior body of the car.(2) They decided to recover some of their losses as a result of DeLorean’s bankruptcy, and sold all the tools and panels that were used in their contracted work. Scrap dealers arrived with trucks in Carlow and cleared away a two-acre site full of stainless steel panels and massive sections of cast iron tooling, which were used to stamp out the panels for the car and essentially functioned as the shape-givers to the DMC-12.(3)

After numerous phone calls and visits to scrap dealers throughout the island, I was surprised that despite the volume of material their businesses deal with, many remembered the DeLorean material.(4) The media scandal on the company’s demise was hot news, and large metal sections, some weighing up to 25 tonnes, were difficult to move around their yards. They in turn exported the metal to furnaces around Europe, where it was melted down and recycled, to begin use in another place or circumstance, as another structure or function. At Galway Metal in Oranmore, I saw a large door on a workshop, constructed from stainless steel sheets once destined to become part of a DeLorean. At Haulbowline Industries, a scrapyard outside Cork City, I heard that twelve large pieces of the tooling were purchased by a company called Emerald Fisheries, who took them by boat to Kilkieran Bay in Co. Galway. There, in an inlet off the Atlantic Ocean, they sunk the tooling to the bottom of the seabed, using them as anchors to hold in place fish cages for salmon farming.(5)

A journey around these various sites had first been made by Gordon Novel, a self-described ‘counter-intelligence expert’ whose name has been associated with several controversial conspiracy theories in the United States.(6) Armed with hidden tape recorders, Novel travelled throughout Ireland and Europe in 1984 in an unsuccessful attempt to recover the tooling, then export and reuse it as part of a proposed new DeLorean manufacturing plant in Ohio. By the time he arrived in Galway, the pieces were already submerged underwater, and he hired divers to examine their condition on the seabed.

A series of photographs taken in 2009 document sites involved in this chain of handling. These images detail the contemporary condition of factories once involved in the production and assembly of the car, sites of scrapyards that collected and handled the remaining metal tooling, the boat that transported them and the fish farm where they were recycled into anchors at the bottom of the sea. The order of the images and accompanying captions seek and suggest evidence of a DeLorean heritage in these places. In this sense, the proverbial ‘needle in the haystack’ is an appropriate consideration; when viewing the photographs, it becomes apparent each site has since been shaped by other, more dominant economic realities. These changes have eroded any obvious DeLorean association. Both portrayed factories now have a different function, yet their austere facades reveal little in regards to what might be produced there: a scrapyard in Dublin’s docklands is now a building site, and a fish farm lies fallow as a result of European Union regulations that have stifled growth in the industry.

As a result, the sequence itself acts as a provisional model, an attempt to represent an interlinked economy long disappeared. Work in the future could continue to document and articulate more places and objects that are linked to this industrial saga. For example, it might be useful to visit the location of metal recycling plants or steel mills operational in the 1980s throughout Europe, with DeLorean in mind. It might also be relevant to consider other tangents that can be evoked by each photograph. When looking at an image of Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin (above), former site of the Hammond Lane scrapyard, one might wonder whether its owners, the music band U2, will ever have the opportunity to build their proposed skyscraper at the location; their scheme might fade away as easily as the history of DeLorean on the site. The Severn Princess, the boat that dropped the tooling into the Atlantic, once functioned as a ferry across the Severn. A web of context here could include Bob Dylan. He was photographed in the rain, with his sunglasses on, waiting for the Princess to arrive and take him across the river from England to Wales in May 1966.(7)

Through understanding what one ‘wants’ in an image, these anecdotes might be the histories of most relevance when looking at images of the Severn Princess or Rogerson’s Quay. This openness to overtures of historical moment might initially suggest a kind of futility or foolish chase in arriving at these scenes too late, trying to find out what might have once occurred there. Yet, to understand where and what the materiality of DeLorean might be, it is useful to think of these locations and narratives as part of a flexible assemblage of history. DeLorean might not simply be an object of 1980s consumerism or an obsolete manufacturing process. By viewing the various scenarios touched and evoked by its presence in the world, a more encompassing view could consider DeLorean as a medium, as a very literal mode of transport (or as Hollywood would have you believe, a time machine) between seemingly disparate sites and events.(8)

During initial research forays into the DeLorean disassembly I encountered claims that body panels were reused in the Carlow area to construct pig troughs. After mentioning the pig troughs during a powerpoint presentation at Eurofest 2011, the quinquennial DeLorean International Owners Convention held at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, I was approached by DMC-12 owner Mervyn Richardson who verified the rumour. He set up his farming equipment business Jetwash Limited as the DeLorean enterprise was winding down, purchasing sheets of stainless steel at a discount price in a scrapyard in Galway. He then used them to fabricate new feeding troughs and elaborate pig farms around Leitrim and Cavan. After a day of driving around some of the sites where DeLorean steel was still in use in this alternative form, Richardson understatedly joked ‘If you were a piece of metal, would you prefer to be a sportscar or a trough for feeding pigs?’(9)

With this instance identified, DeLorean as an industrial heritage requires reconsideration. As a form expanding in various diverging strands, as a pig farm, as a scrapyard, or as an anchor on the seabed, a term such as DeLorean-ness could suffice. Instead of viewing it as a product derived from Fordist principles of production line assembly, DeLorean-ness is a base material, a failed process now rendered into other unexpected contexts. It’s unclear if DeLorean-ness can express or stand for something. Instead it is a state of tension, pushed further and further away from being a sportcar, breaking down the sequence of industrial production into an incoherent nightmare. In each photograph, piece of information or encounter described here, its’ place in the world is dissected into ever decreasing situations and sedimented themes until any auratic presence disappears.

These characteristics are apparent in a collection of photographs that detail the current location of the DeLorean tooling. A series of reconnaissance dives were performed around Kilkieran Bay in July 2009. Of a reported twelve presses, three can still be seen above the surface of the seabed. These structures weigh between four and six tonnes, and are situated at distances of 18 and 22 metres beneath the water’s surface. Seaweed, crabs, starfish and a lobster all inhabit the area in and around the tooling.(10) The photographs of this underwater scene, taken by industrial deep-sea divers, hold visual puns of sorts. In considering these discarded objects – taken from one scenario and made useful and meaningful in another – occasional shapes appear that seem somewhat similar to the shape of the DMC-12, but now with crustaceans as the passengers. They appear inside cavities and underneath the straight lines of the tooling profiles.(11) As a hybrid between industry and environment, these images might be considered an evocation of the picturesque: a place of nature shaped by the action of man.(12)

 

The chase and study of the relative materiality of the past and its image today can often result in somewhat absurd situations. An initial plan at the outset of this search was to find and recover the tooling and create one more DeLorean car from their shapes. Some negotiations, a barge with a crane, and a day’s work would pull the tooling to the surface. But at what cost? A lobster’s home and ecosystem is destroyed in the process, along with the burden of investing into and re-activating the entire chain of handling and economy. Rather than shaping such a revival, the tooling might be left there, as a premature ruin of a manufacturing process that was ultimately never concluded but never completely eliminated, either. Here, a makeshift proposal to work in the shadows of this history might be of worth, rather than unscrambling all that has
already occurred.

The history of labour is clearly delineated: once mechanised in nineteenth century factories, individual work assignments became more simplified while the overall production process became more complex. Coordinating and controlling the flow of work from one manufacturing stage to another therefore became vital and, in the eyes of factory masters, demanded close regulation. Under these conditions the engineering of people assumed an importance equal to the engineering of materials. As conformity and fixed routines supplanted individuality in the workplace craft skills became a detriment to production. In Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Neil McKenzie moved into a vacant industrial unit at the edge of the town. Using traditional handforming metalwork techniques, he has set about making a wooden mould in the shape of a DeLorean car and forming out of stainless steel grade 304 a bootleg version of the exterior body panels. Crimping, wheeling, welding and hammering out the shapes, his work has been labour-intensive, producing by hand what was once made through industrial means by the tooling now in Kilkieran Bay. Mistakes are made, parts don’t quite fit, but work goes on with no concern for any actual productivity. This is represented in the gallery space through an amount of stainless steel pieces varying from initial attempts at shaping to more resolved forms, alongside workshop tools and flickering images of work in progress taken on McKenzie’s mobile phone (above).

A conscious underpinning around this activity has been to dissolve any recognition between labour and productivity, for it is unlikely that this version of a DMC-12 will ever be completed to drive on the road. Instead, this effort alludes to a frantic positioning of patterns of activity that remain stringently peripheral to assembly-line production. There are no standardised routines here, only attempts at clawing back the shapes and forms of a failed industrial venture, a fragmentary approach using habits and practices long eliminated from populist commodity form. Such a gesture might be initially construed as a lament for ways of the good old things, or a desire to valorise the idea of craft against the hegemony of manufactured form. Yet its’ speculative investment, within the notion of DeLorean-ness, is that it might hypothesize a modification or displacement of the very ideology-critique of venture capitalism that cast it aside.

This document will continue to be revised around this concern, as further information, circumstance and points of view come to light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(1) Source: Variety Magazine, 8th June 2009.

(2) It is worth noting the ethos behind using stainless steel. The American automobile industry – of which DeLorean had been a part, during a long tenure with General Motors – had long been accused of ‘planned obsolescence’. This effectively meant that each car was designed to be replaced in a few years with a newer model. An idea to produce a car with a material that would never rust meant, in DeLorean’s eyes, the DMC-12 could last forever. He later noted “Rust spots on an otherwise usable car drastically lower the resale value and make “junkers” of cars that could have been serviceable for many years. Such deterioration can also be dangerous. I remember a time when I was young and a gang of us were going somewhere in somebody’s “old clunker.” I was sitting in the back seat with two other boys. Suddenly, we hit a bump, and the entire rusted-out rear floor fell out of the car. We were lucky we weren’t seriously injured or killed.” Source: John Z. DeLorean with Ted Schwarz, DeLorean (Michigan,1985), p.99.

(3) While official records are now lost, 30 to 40 dies were sold as scrap for around £80,000–90,000. At the British Steel Corporation plant in Sheffield, an estimated 3,000 tonnes of material were melted down. Source: former Läpple employee Michael O’Leary in an unpublished interview with John Dore, 2008.

Another car manufacturing venture in Ireland that acts as a precursor to the rise and fall of DeLorean is the Shamrock Car. Bill Curtis, an American investor, developed a plan for the production of the Irish version of the Cadillac or Ford Thunderbird between 1956 and 1959. Initially, elaborate plans were made for a factory in Tralee to produce 3,000 cars in its first year, rising to 10,000 cars over the next two years. It was planned that with government support that improved harbour facilities would be developed in Tralee to allow 10,000-ton vessels to be used for direct shipment of the cars to America. However, this plan fell through, and it was decided to move the factory inland, to Castleblayney, County Monaghan, where government subsidies had already help establish a fruit canning factory and a leather-processing factory.

There, Curtis worked with Canadian Spike Rhiando, a racecar driver whose greatest victory was the 1948 British 500 grand prix. Rhiando drifted out the racing scene, before re-appearing in Monaghan in 1959 to design the Shamrock. He had patented an idea that a car’s bodywork could be made in a single moulding technique called Rhiteglass. Using the chassis of an Austin A55, Rhiando placed his Rhiteglass body, essentially a fibreglass structure, on top of the body. Several new techniques were used in the body, and the end result was impressive for the time in terms of torsional stiffness and finish. However, there were technical problems. Rumours were that at 40 mph the doors of the car would open. A 1.5 litre engine was too small for the body of the car almost 16 feet long. You could not change the rear tyres, with the shock absorbers too short to drop the axle down. Between eight and ten cars were produced over a seven-month period in Castleblayney, where over seventy people were employed. The project eventually fell through with cash flow problems. Tommy Burns, the town’s tailor, was employed to cut out the fibreglass matting that would act as the template for the body of the Shamrock. He recalls that the work was interesting, but that Rhiando and Curtis, were ‘cowboys’. Source: interview with Tommy Burns, 2006. Leftover pieces of Rhiteglass from the Shamrock factory had no value in a scrapyard, and were subsequently thrown into marshland on the edge of Castleblayney. Any possible recovery of this material was thwarted as the site was concreted over in the early 1990s in the construction of the town’s water treatment plant. For a further interrogation of the history, see Kevin Barry, “DeLorean Redux’, in The Dublin Review, no 39, summer 2010, available at www.thedublinreview.com/delorean-redux/

(4) Through the development of this project since 2009, I’ve began to realise my own subjectivity to the scrap industry. My father was a mechanic and as a child I accompanied him to a variety of yards dotted around Munster in the evenings, watching him find spare parts for truck and tractor repairs the next morning. I have somewhat generic memories from that time; a bossman who could recall every part of every model and knew exactly where to find it; a large puddle of water at the main gate, present even on the driest day of the year and of indeterminable depth to keep any men in suits or the taxman out of bounds; and the inevitable sound of a barking dog in the distance.

(5) Kilkieran Bay, located north of Galway Bay, has a large area of open water, many islands and rocky inlets, with deeper-than-average water depths and protection from prevailing winds and currents. Emerald Fisheries set up several fish farms in the area in the 1980s, and imported from Japan a new kind of fish farm structure, called the Bridgestone Cage. These cages are seven-sided, 50 metres across and could accommodate up to 100,000 fish in relatively low stocking densities. They required a heavy anchoring system to keep them in place.

(6) Novel first gained prominence in the United States as an alleged CIA agent in 1963, with purported connections to conspirators in the JFK assassination plot. Following involvement in the Watergate and Waco investigations, Novel has recently been active with Free Energy Suppression research. He claims special interest groups related to the oil industry have blocked advanced technology that can give plentiful amounts of cheap energy. Several unsuccessful attempts through various channels to contact Novel about the content of his Irish tapes have been made.

(7) Dylan was on the start of his controversial 1966 UK tour, when he started playing electrical guitar to the horror of folk music audiences. Martin Scorsese’s film No Direction Home about Dylan’s life used the photograph as its promotional image. Shortly after he passed through, the Severn Bridge was opened and replaced the ferry service.

(8) On tour in 1978 to impress potential investors, the first prototype DeLorean was photographed in front of the 35-storey-high Westin Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The hotel, built by architect and developer John Portman and opened in 1976, later became a subject of Fredric Jameson’s musings on the nature of postmodern space. He wrote that the hotel, with its difficult-to-find entrances and its large central lobby full of escalators and elevators, spatially disorientates visitors in a manner that has ‘finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and to map cognitively its position in a mappable external world’. Observing the DMC-12 parked in front of the Bonaventure and continuing a line of tangential thinking, one is tempted is consider the car’s presence and its many referentialities in a similar manner. Source: Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998 (London, New York, 1998), p.16. Incidentally, a meeting involving DeLorean’s drug ring took place at the Bonaventure Hotel on 28 September 1982. Covertly recorded by the FBI, DeLorean was then told that sales from the cocaine deal could gross more that $50million.

(9) Rather than performing an evocation of one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, this transformation has some contextual grounding in a nuanced consideration of the functionality of this stainless steel. As a DMC-12 the steel would have acted as a container and signifier of a 1980s lifestyle and consumer choice. As a pig trough in a farm producing over 30,000 animals a year for human consumption, it forms part of a container where these animals never touch the ground, and are bred, suckled and fed to maturity in specially designed pens. One might argue that the reduction of the pig is part of the same process as that by which man have been reduced to isolated consuming units of capitalist goods, such as a DMC-12. Furthermore, the production of biological mass in these pig farms points is ultimately directed to the same isolated individual; ‘Several domesticated species (pigs, cattle, goats) may be considered biomass converters, which aid the process of shortening and redirecting foodchains. For example, cattle and goats transform indigestible biomass (leaves, sprouts, grass) into edible flesh and milk. Pigs are even more efficient converters (one-fifth of the carbohydrates they eat are transformed into protein)… Together, humans and their “extended family” of domesticates, transformed a heterogeneous meshwork of species (a temperate forest) into a homogeneous hierarchy, since all biomass now flowed towards a single point at the top.” Source: Manual De Landa, A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, (New York,1997) p.108.

(10) The rest of the tooling was not visible in July 2009, but remains on-site underneath the seabed. It is likely that winter storms from the Atlantic might expose their surfaces from time to time. Each press has a chain linking it to the fish cage above. Visible tooling has provided shelter and an attachment surface for a variety of plants and animals. A lobster (Homarus gammarus) has made his home in a casting cavity. A nocturnal animal, it typically seeks a sheltered hideout as a permanent home. Similarly, many common edible crabs (Cancer pagurus) can be seen, along with swimming crabs (Liocarcinus puber) and green crabs (Carcinus maenas). Extensive and varied beds of red calcareous algae (known locally as ‘coral’) are present, along with other forms of seaweed. Sea cucumber (Neopentactyla mixta) is also plentiful. Dives and a site synopsis were completed by John and Mark Costello. Further work needs to be undertaken to identify which body parts were manufactured from the visible tooling (i.e. door panels, front or rear fenders). This is a difficult task, given the overgrowth on each press. Meanwhile, Läpple’s headquarters in Heilbronn, Germany, no longer hold any records related to its work in Carlow for DeLorean.

(11) In a precedent to this scenario, a television advertisement produced for the car in 1981 featured a DMC-12 beside the ocean. As its gull-wing doors opened upwards, the car slowly dissolves into an image of a seagull flying in the sky. The car-bird metaphoric change emphasizes a revelation that rests heavily on associative rather than any realistic criteria of materialism, and is typical of methods at the centre of the marketing world.

(12) This underwater scene does not simply serve as an allegory of the catastrophe and fallout of the DeLorean venture; instead, it is unmediated evidence of it. Much heated discussion revolved around the status of the metal tooling. DeLorean claimed they were scrapped as part of continuing opposition from the British Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Numerous overtures to secure further state funds for the factory in 1982 were unsuccessful. Instead UK state aid in 1982 included £473 million to British Steel, £370 million to British Leyland and £139 million to British shipbuilders (including Belfast’s Harland and Wolff). Source: Nick Sutton, The DeLorean Story: The Car, The People, The Scandal (London, 2013), p.210.


A factor in the dissolution of a relationship with the UK government was newspaper headlines of 4 October 1981, revealing that DMC were to be investigated for alleged misuse of public funds. The enquiry was initiated because of revelations supplied to Conservative MP Nicholas Winterton by Marion Gibson, a secretary in DeLorean’s New York office. She made several allegations of impropriety, but what made headlines were documents detailing the purchase of gold faucets for Warren House, DeLorean’s Belfast residence. Winterton was quoted, ‘‘It would be best if we went straight to Margaret Thatcher with this.’ With the enquiry already initiated, the faucets were identified as being gold plated rather than gold and purchased from a supplier in London. Source: Ivan Fallon & James Srodes, DeLorean: Rise and Fall of a Dream Maker (New York, 1983), p.312-3.

DeLorean continued to be critical of the level of government support. He later wrote: ‘We have recently learned that when it looked like DMC might come out of bankruptcy and rise from the ashes, the British government ordered the 12 million dollars’ worth of body dies destroyed, dies essential for manufacturing the DeLorean motor car...The destruction of tooling of a car out of production less than 10 years is against the law in most Western countries. When the British government instructed the firm holding the DMC body dies to destroy them, the company refused on the basis that such a malicious act violated their country’s laws. Our understanding is that only after the British government supplied them with a letter freeing them from any legal liability did they finally comply... Why is the British government doing this to me?’ Source: John Z. DeLorean with Ted Schwarz, DeLorean (Michigan, 1985), p.338. The scrap dealers of Ireland had a different opinion. Michael Byron, a general manager of Hammond Lane Metal Company, said: ‘Anybody could have bought them from us if they had made an offer... They (the dies) were a bloody nuisance’; ‘Good Christ, not at all... I could have started the DeLorean Motor Company here if I was foolish enough,’ said Paddy Walsh, owner of the Galway Metal Company. Source: Detroit Free Press, 20th October 1985.