NEWARK, N.J. – John Z. DeLorean (search), the innovative automaker who left a promising career in Detroit to develop the stainless steel-skinned, gull-winged sports car bearing his name and was acquitted of charges he planned to sell $24 million worth of cocaine to support the venture, has died at the age of 80.
DeLorean died Saturday at Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J., of complications from a recent stroke, said Paul Connell, an owner of A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Directors (search) in Royal Oak, Mich., which was handling arrangements.
DeLorean, whose namesake car was turned into a time machine in the "Back to the Future" (search) movies, was among just a handful of U.S. entrepreneurs who dared start a car company in the last 75 years.
DeLorean "broke the mold" of staid Midwestern auto executives by pushing General Motors Corp. (GM) to offer smaller models, auto historians said.
While at GM, he created what some consider the first "muscle car" in 1964 by cramming a V-8 engine into a Pontiac Tempest and calling it the GTO.
Although he was a rising if unconventional executive at GM, and was believed by many to be destined for its presidency, he quit in 1973 to launch the DeLorean Motor Car Co. in Northern Ireland.
Eight years later, the DeLorean DMC-12 hit the streets with its unpainted stainless steel skin and gull-wing doors.
Its angular design earned it a cult following, and the car was a time-traveling vehicle for Michael J. Fox in the "Back to the Future" films of the late 1980s.
However, the factory produced only about 8,900 cars in three years, estimated John Truscott, membership director of the DeLorean Owners Association.
DeLorean's company collapsed in 1983, a year after he was arrested in Los Angeles, accused in a sting of conspiring to sell $24 million of cocaine to salvage the company.
DeLorean used an entrapment defense to win acquittal on the drug charges in 1984, despite a surveillance videotape in which he was shown calling a suitcase full of cocaine "good as gold."
He was later cleared of defrauding his investors, but continuing legal entanglements kept him on the sidelines of the automotive world. He declared bankruptcy in 1999.