While only about 9,000 of his namesake cars were ever built, John Z. DeLorean's place in auto history was assured as soon as the gull-winged sports cars rumbled off the assembly line.
DeLorean was among just a handful of U.S. entrepreneurs who dared start a car company in the last 75 years and he helped shift Detroit toward smaller, more efficient autos until his career was derailed by federal drug charges.
DeLorean died late Saturday in Summit of complications from a recent stroke, said Paul Connell, an owner of A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Directors in Royal Oak, Mich., which was handling arrangements. He was 80.
"John DeLorean was one of Detroit's larger-than-life figures who secured a noteworthy place in our industry's history," GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said Sunday in a statement. "He made a name for himself through his talent, creativity, innovation and daring."
While apt to be remembered popularly as the man behind the car modified for time travel in the "Back to the Future" movies, DeLorean left a powerful imprint in automaking built on unique, souped-up cars.
A Detroit native, DeLorean broke the mold of staid Midwestern auto executives by "going Hollywood," and pushed General Motors Corp. 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, fondly dubbed the "Goat" by auto enthusiasts.
DeLorean was a rising if unconventional executive at GM who many believe was destined for its presidency before he quit in 1973 to launch the DeLorean Motor Car Co. in Northern Ireland. Eight years later, the DeLorean DMC-12 hit the streets.
Its hallmarks, such as an unpainted stainless steel skin and the gull-wing doors, have been ignored by mainstream automakers. The angular design, however, earned it a cult following.
But the factory produced only about 8,900 cars in three years, estimated John Truscott, membership director of the DeLorean Owners Association. That figure is dwarfed by the major automakers, who sell more than a million vehicles a month.
DeLorean's company collapsed in 1983, a year after he was arrested in Los Angeles and accused of conspiring to sell $24 million of cocaine to salvage his venture.
DeLorean used an entrapment defense to win acquittal on the drug charges in 1984, despite a videotape in which he called a suitcase full of cocaine "good as gold."
DeLorean was later cleared of defrauding investors, but continuing legal entanglements kept him on the sidelines of the automotive world, although his passion for cars did not abate. After declaring bankruptcy in 1999, he said he wanted to produce a speedy plastic sports car selling for only $20,000.
John Zachary DeLorean joined GM in 1956 as an engineering director for Pontiac. His patents included the recessed windshield wiper and the overhead cam engine. DeLorean led Pontiac by age 40, and four years later became the youngest head of GM's giant Chevrolet division.
He helped shift Detroit toward smaller, more efficient autos, such as the Vega 2300 in 1970. DeLorean was a GM vice president in charge of all North American car and truck operations when he quit in 1973.
The namesake car he created in the early '80s featured a rear-mounted, aluminum 2.8-liter V-6 fuel-injected engine that produced 130 horsepower and went 0-60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Independent four-wheel suspension, a broad 62-inch stance, and front wheels smaller than the rear set made for tight handling, aficionados said.
"Twenty years later, it's still just as modern as anything coming out of the factories now," Truscott said.
After the DeLorean car venture failed, he was involved in some 40 legal cases, including his 1985 divorce from model and talk show personality Cristina Ferrare _ his third wife _ after a 12-year marriage.
"I believe I deserve what happened to me," DeLorean told The Associated Press after the divorce, which followed his drug trial.
"The deadliest sin is pride," he said, proclaiming his faith as a born-again Christian. "I was an arrogant egomaniac. I needed this, as difficult as it was, to get my perspective back."