“It’s got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents, and hard-core drug dealers.”
That’s how the son of former General Motors exec John DeLorean — who created his own car company, DeLorean Motor Company, or DMC — describes the story of his father’s downfall and the end of his car dreams in the new documentary Framing John DeLorean.
That dramatic description could easily be adjusted to describe Elon Musk and his electric car company Tesla, what with his high-profile girlfriends like Amber Heard and Grimes, that pot-smoking incident on the Joe Rogan podcast, his bizarre accusations of drug use, his fraught relationship with federal SEC officials, and, of course, plenty of cars. But comparisons to DMC also serve as a boost to Tesla’s perception and reputation.
Framing John DeLorean is out in theaters Friday. It features plenty of re-enactments of auto executive DeLorean (played by Alec Baldwin) in its examination of the man’s almost-impossibly cinematic life and that of his ill-fated car company, DMC. The company fizzled out in 1982 in the most epic way, with a federal drug bust, arrest, and trial after DeLorean got tangled up in a cocaine trafficking deal to fund his dying car company. (Again, epic.) That was only a few years after the company launched and produced one and only one car, the now-famous gull-winged DMC-12 (also known simply as the DeLorean).
Comparisons of DeLorean to eccentric billionaire and car executive Musk aren’t new. There’s even a piece that asks point-blank, “Is Tesla the Next DeLorean?” Both men are considered visionaries with intriguing personal lives and a singleminded determination to produce a different type of car despite pressure to stick to the status quo.
But after the documentary’s many interviews with DeLorean’s former colleagues and industry leaders, along with archival footage and commentary from his children, DMC’s demise puts Tesla in a new light. A much more flattering one. It shows how Tesla has succeeded where others have tried and failed, even if it’s still working on becoming the car of the masses and not just dominant in electric vehicle sales.
To be clear, neither Tesla nor Musk was ever mentioned in the film — filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena Joyce are more focused on uncovering who DeLorean was and what motivated him to make the decisions that led to his dream company’s demise. “No one is ever one thing,” Joyce said after a screening in San Francisco earlier this month. (DeLorean died in 2005.)
The movie stops short of taking a deeper look into the car industry and how DMC shaped the automotive landscape of today. But at one point, a car industry expert in the film notes that DMC was the first American car company to arrive in 1975 since Chrysler in the 1920s.
Tesla has since taken that title and truly become the first American car company — it’s based in California — with longevity and potential. Tesla has produced more than 300,000 cars since 2003; anticipates at least 400,000 vehicles delivered by the end of 2019; went public in 2010; and has had moments of profitability. It’s become something of a success story and galvanized electrification throughout the car industry despite critics, naysayers, and a big stock drop in recent weeks (more than 30 percent after a bad first quarter and company-wide cost-cutting measures).
Only about 9,000 DMC-12s were ever made, but that hasn’t stopped the car from becoming a cult classic. It helps that popular movie Back to the Future turned the DeLorean into an iconic vehicle in 1985 — although just a little too late to save it. The DMC fan club that emerged from the film hints at what could’ve been. DeLorean had his fans — his daughter touches on that in the doc — but they barely compare to the numbers of Tesla and Musk fanatics. (An unscientific look at search results for DeLorean fan groups compared to Tesla fan groups makes this clear: 267,000 results for DMC and 3.78 million for Tesla.)
DeLorean had visions of factories mass-producing his cars. A shot in the doc showing the land where DMC would end up building a 660,000-square-foot factory in Northern Ireland is reminiscent of Tesla’s similar shots, promising car plants worldwide pumping out car parts, batteries, and most importantly, jobs. The British government shut down the Dunmurry DMC plant in 1982. Tesla this year is building yet another factory in Shanghai, and another in Europe soon.
Then there are the design similarities. DeLorean was hailed for his innovative stainless steel, gull-winged car design. Musk has described the Model X electric SUV with its falcon-wing doors as the “Fabergé egg of cars.” Musk’s nearly bare interior with only touchscreen in the Model 3 is eye-catching, just like the bullet-shaped DMC once was. Even down to the door handles, both carmakers were thinking differently.
The fact that DMC got the ultimate marketing push with its high visibility as the time machine in Back to the Future too late to save it is more than frustrating (and apparently wasn’t even intentional, according to the filmmakers interviewed in the Framing doc). Tesla, comparatively, is still garnering attention for its sedans and SUVs. The Model Y launch event in March brought in hordes of online viewers, and back in 2016 about 100,000 reservations came in for the Model 3 — and it’s not bankrupt yet. There’s even an Easter egg tucked into Tesla’s software referencing the modified DMC-12 Doc Brown uses.
A Twitter meltdown is more likely than a federal cocaine bust to take down Musk and Tesla, but still, Framing John DeLorean serves as a cautionary tale of sorts for the electric car maker. It might be riding high and confident now, but the car industry is fickle.