Wheeling out a sports car almost as quick as a wink

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Before the end of this year, car buyers in the United States should be able to purchase the latest in foreign sports cars -- the DMC-12 from the De Lorean Motor Company in Northern Ireland. The cars will land on US shores only 18 months after the De Lorean project was started here.

Since John Z. De Lorean, chairman of the company, persuaded the British government in 1978 to provide $106 million of taxpayers' money to build a sports-car factory in Roman Catholic West Belfast, a new superstructure has risen from the green fields at Dunmurry, some six miles from the center of the city. Industrialists and the British motor industry in particular were astonished at the speed of negotiations between Mr. De Lorean and the government , which took only 45 days to complete. Moreover, the progress on the project so far is impressive.

Mr. De Lorean undertook to employ up to 2,000 people in the production of a two-seater vehicle for the US market. His record as former group vice-president of General Motors and his ability as an auto engineer and marketing executive persuaded 350 dealers across the US each to buy $25,000 worth of De Lorean shares and to take from 50 to 150 completed cars. These orders will account for the first two years of production in Belfast.

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Mr. De Lorean himself invested $4 million, and another $18 million came from North American sources. The British prepared the site, built the plant, and provided most of the money. It was a unique deal which gave both sides what they wanted: Mr. De Lorean needed the financing, the facilities, and the right kind of labor force. The british wanted new jobs for an area of high unemployment, plus a new prestige product.

Mr. De Lorean remains the linchpin, providing his own vision and pragmatism. His experience, plus his considerable charisma, opened doors that would have remained closed to others. He is based in New York and commutes regularly to Belfast. After a monthly board meeting at Dunmurry he outlined his reasons for establishing his factory in Northern Ireland.

"We were considering other places, like Puerto Rico and Spain, but the finances in Northern Ireland were not dramatically difderent," he said in an interview. "What we did find here was a refreshing attitude to labor relations. There were dramatically fewer stop-pages than on the United Kingdom mainland, and that was one of our main concerns. We also wanted to go to a place where people did not have experience of auto assembly. We wanted to train them from scratch, rather than have to correct bad habits learned from others."

Mr. De Lorean has been able to recruit from an area with traditional engineering skills in shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture. Also, with unemployment topping 11 percent, there is a large reservoir of unskilled labor. The company is more than pleased with the support it has been given.

"The cooperation has been spectacular," Mr. De Lorean said. "The government and the other agencies have fulfilled their promises."

Many people were surprised that he came to an area of intermittent violence. "Sure, this place has problems," he said. "But every place has problems. I feel that economics can play some part in finding a solution. It tends to be the have-nots who get caught up in violence."

Mr. De Lorean appears to some people here as the eternal optimist. But he is an achiever, and thus far there have been no major hitches in the sports car project. There are still question marks. For instance, it is crucial that the product be of the highest quality. If vehicles have to be returned to the factory from the United States, that could end the whole project.

The official view in Northern Ireland is one of guarded optimism. Anthony Hopkins, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Development Agency, which has a risk becomes less. When we saw the blueprint there was some skepticism, but when we met the man and became aware of the high caliber of the management team, the skepticism began to subside. John De Lorean had the vision and we needed not only the jobs, But also a project geared to the American market to show that Northern Ireland can deliver the goods. This was a new company, A new product, and a new concept, and was going straight into top gear."

The last word will be left to the customers, but Mr. De Lorean seems as confident as ever. "I'm not the kind of man who is capable of addressing failure," he says.

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