Who Was John DeLorean, Disgraced '80s Auto Mogul Arrested for Smuggling $24 Million of Cocaine?

Alec Baldwin portrays the former automotive industry titan in the new documentary Framing John DeLorean

In 1965 at age 40, Cheverlot boss John DeLorean became the youngest division head in General Motors history. He was an automotive engineer who created cars like the Pontiac GTO, but DeLorean had the looks and lifestyle of a movie star.

“John was a legendary automotive designer who had great success at GM,” Alec Baldwin, who plays DeLorean in the new film Framing John DeLorean, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “John made his name in the business, and that business was like a movie. You release something and if it’s a hit, you’re the king for the time being.”

After his 14-year marriage to his secretary fell apart in 1969 due to his workaholism, DeLorean, then 44, wed 20-year-old actress and model Kelly Harmon. Also in the late ‘60s, DeLorean had plastic surgery to enhance his jaw.

“The beginning of his problems is narcissism that’s grounded in a couple things. One is plastic surgery — a level of manipulating your public persona that we identify with the Kardashians,” Baldwin, 61, says. “John DeLorean was ahead of the curve doing that then, in order to make people believe about him what he needed them to believe.”

John DeLorean; Alec Baldwin as the ex-GM exec. Borsari Images; Nicole Rivelli

With DeLorean and Harmon divorcing in 1972, the businessman adopted son Zachary because he wanted to be a father and, “I never thought I would marry again,” he explained at the time.

DeLorean went on to date Ursula Andress, Joey Heatherton and Tina Sinatra before he spotted model Cristina Ferrare in Vogue and landed a date with her in December 1972. By January of the next year, she had moved in with him and then two months later, Ferrare gave him an ultimatum: “Either we get married or drop dead.” In May, the once-previously-wed supermodel, 23, became the third Mrs. John Zachary DeLorean and they welcomed daughter Kathryn in 1978.

One month before their wedding, the Detroit native left his six-figure job as General Motors vice president to work for a year to in the nonpaying role as head of the National Alliance of Businessmen. DeLorean reentered the automotive business five years later with his DeLorean Motor Company, an Ireland-based brand with investors like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis, Jr. DeLorean began producing the futuristic DMC-12, a $25,000 sports car, in 1981.

alec baldwin and Morena Baccarin in the framing of john delorean
Alec Baldwin and costar Morena Baccarin as Cristina Ferrare in Framing John DeLorean. IFC

“When he goes to run his own company and doesn’t want to answer to anybody else, John didn’t have that skill,” Baldwin says. “John didn’t have the skill to run the finances of the company and the marketing of the company. John was a designer. When John wouldn’t admit what he didn’t know, that was the beginning of the end because the company couldn’t survive.”

By the time the gull-winged, “rust-proof” vehicle landed a starring role as Marty McFly’s time machine in 1985’s Back to the Future, it had flopped publicly, ceasing production in 1983 after making approximately 9,000 cars.

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In order to save his collapsing empire, DeLorean turned to selling drugs, and in October 1982 was arrested and charged with conspiracy to obtain and distribute $24 million worth of cocaine. FBI cameras caught DeLorean calling the drug “better than gold” when presented with it by law enforcement officers disguised as investors. The DeLorean Motor Company filed for bankruptcy a week later. During that era, DeLorean himself owned a 20-room, $7.2 million Fifth Avenue duplex in Manhattan; a 440-acre, $3.5-million New Jersey estate; and a $4 million California ranch with hot tub accommodations for eight. He also traded real estate and was worth an estimated $28 million.

Tony Korody/Sygma/Getty

DeLorean was acquitted in August 1984, but ended up back in court the next year for charges relating to his handling of company money. By 1999, the former auto exec was bankrupt and sitting in $85 million debt. He died in 2005 from complications of a stroke.

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“John is a cautionary tale,” Baldwin says. “John is someone who did bad things. He did irresponsible things. A lot of them made people suffer, and he dodged the consequences. He played the entrapment card and won in court. John is somebody who is a warning.”

Framing John DeLorean is out now.

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