Test-driving a De Lorean -- at last

When David Gardella went to work for Smyly Buick less than a year ago, his job was to sell the low-slung, zippy car with the DMC on the hood. Built by John Z. De Lorean, onetime top officer of General Motors, the car seemed the end of the rainbow, not only to Mr. De Lorean but to many other people as well.

It meant jobs in Northern Ireland and profits to a few dozen car dealers in the United States. Too, it meant a new kind of sports car to the thousands who were expected to buy one.

At the time, Mr. Gardella thought his job would last more than a year. Now the De Lorean sales manager for Smyly, who already has sold nearly 30 De Lorean ''silver bullets'' and claims the title as the car's top East Coast salesman, is looking for a new job.

''I may go to Thailand,'' says the Harvard-educated car salesman, race-car driver, and onetime teacher, noting that he has a friend in Bangkok who may be able to get him a job.

Mr. Gardella is one more victim of the De Lorean fiasco.

John De Lorean himself is awaiting trial on drug-dealing charges, and the company has been taken over - lock, stock, and spare parts - by Consolidated International Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, a liquidation firm which also bought out the Canadian factory and inventory of Malcolm Bricklin a few years ago when Bricklin failed to keep a new sports-car company on the go.

The final shipment of more than 1,000 De Loreans, plus parts, arrived on the US East Coast in the closing days of 1982. Not surprisingly, the company may have no trouble getting rid of the cars, sometimes at a premium.

Sol A. Shenk, president of Consolidated, figures that the cars will all be sold by next summer and rules out that the Northern Ireland auto plant will be reopened.

Mr. Gardella says his cars now are going for ''between $24,000 and $26,000'' - and it ''takes little salesmanship'' to sell them although some buyers are having second thoughts. In some other markets the cars are going for much more.

The De Lorean debacle underscores the difficulty of producing a brand-new car today, no matter the name of the entrepreneur.

What's it like to drive a brand-new De Lorean? Intimidating!

It took a long time to get behind the wheel of one, but finally I sank down into the highly raked driver's seat, grabbed the wheel, pushed the clutch to the floor, slammed into first gear, and was off.

The car is fast - that's for sure - perhaps much too fast. With a top speed of about 140 miles an hour, does it really have a place on US roads? With the potential for such speed, will it not be put to the test?

But beyond that, the car takes some getting used to. Take the gull-wing doors , for example. They swing up and down with ease, and there is no likelihood of water getting inside, Mr. Gardella says, but they are a big departure from the usual way of entering and exiting an automobile.

''Shove the clutch all the way to the floor,'' he warns. That done, the gears fall into place with ease.

Gardella says the car does 0 to 60 m.p.h. ''in under 8 seconds.''

''You don't even need safety belts,'' he adds, ''because the car is a cage with roll bars and cushioning on the roof. At 6 feet 2, he has several inches of room above his head. Still, I feel somewhat trapped inside the ''cage.''

The car - with input from both Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design and Lotus, Britain's acclaimed sports-car company - uses a V-6 engine designed and built by a trio of European carmakers, Renault and Peugeot of France as well as Volvo of Sweden. The transmission is by Renault.

The A-pillars, which support the windshield on either side, get in the way of good vision because of their size. The ride is stiff and so is the steering, but isn't this a sports car?

Sunk down in the driver's seat with the back at an angle, I feel as if I'm about to take off.

This is a De Lorean!

Would I buy one if I could afford it? I doubt it. Yet undoubtedly, a few more people still will. About 8,700 cars were built before the factory door slammed for the last time last May.

Like it or not, the fact remains that the flamboyant Mr. De Lorean, who climbed to the top rungs of the General Motors hierarchy before he quit his job nearly 10 years ago, did build his dream car, which is something that many other hopeful entrepreneurs have been unable to do. In fairness, Mr. De Lorean did what he set out to do, but finally had to give up just as Malcolm Bricklin had before him.

In trying to fend off the wolf on the doorstep last fall, Mr. De Lorean ran full force into a shut door.

For a long time after the car went into production, the company didn't want an automotive writer to get into the car.

In the fall of 1981, I had been promised - promised, mind you - that I would have one in my hands within days. Tomorrow . . next week . . . a week from Tuesday - and nothing came of it, despite a flurry of phone calls.

Even the buff-type magazines were stonewalled.

The company was determined to keep the cars out of the hands of the press if at all possible. The early examples of the car were that bad.

There was no way the company wanted adverse publicity as the car, built in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, a suburb of Belfast, was launched into the world.

Thus, I decided to forget about it. I waited till the Boston Auto Show last November. Then, as I squinted inside the locked car at the show, Mr. Gardella introduced himself and offered me the key if I would drop by the showroom.

Ernie Boch, a multibrand auto dealer and regional distributor of the Subaru (Boch also is a dealer for the just-introduced Mitsubishi line of new cars), also asked me to drop by his place and go for a spin.

Ordinarily, I prefer not to drive dealership cars, opting rather to sample products directly from the importer, in the case of the Europeans and Japanese, or from the major carmakers in Detroit.

That way there is no question about the total objectivity of the drive. Without too many options, I finally decided to take Gardella up on his offer - and today's drive is the result.

Meanwhile, the cost of the abortive De Lorean exploit is still being calculated. The trial of Mr. De Lorean, charged along with two others in federal district court in Los Angeles with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine, is scheduled for next spring.

In Belfast, thousands of workers are out of a job; the British Government stands to lose much of its $165 million investment in the project although it ultimately will take over the empty plant; hundreds of suppliers, including Renault of France and Britain's Lotus, are out on a limb; a few dozen auto dealers in the US are looking for prospects; and even Mr. De Lorean's personal wealth could itself be jeopardized.

The saga of the De Lorean motorcar rolls on.

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