My Grandfather Was A Senior Executive at GM with DeLorean, Making “Back to the Future” Day Very Personal

On Wednesday, "Back to the Future" day made us all a bit nostalgic for the past. But for me, the day was more than just some silly sci-fi movie plot point.

On Wednesday, "Back to the Future" day made us all a bit nostalgic for the past. It was the date two of the ‘80s most beloved characters -- “Marty McFly” (Michael J. Fox) and “Doc Brown” (Christopher Lloyd) -- drove their tricked-out, time-traveling DeLorean into the future in part two of the film’s trilogy.

But for me, the day was more than just some silly sci-fi movie plot point. In a twist of fate in real life, DeLorean -- the man, not the car -- took me back in time to learn about my own father.

Let me explain.

My grandfather and John DeLorean worked together as senior executives at General Motors in the heyday of burgeoning innovation in Detroit in the 1960s.

If you were a hotshot engineer back in the day, that's where you wanted to be. But DeLorean was the antithesis of the typical GM executive, my father told me when I first asked about him this summer. He was bold, he was liberal, and he definitely didn’t care about the rules of corporate life.

My grandfather, on the other hand, at least played the part of the “typical” GM exec: He was always clad strictly in white dress shirts, he voted Republican and he maintained an active presence in community organizations, like the United Way.

He passed away long before I was born, and I never got to know him. But I did know the 30th anniversary of the first film in the “Back to the Future” trilogy would be arriving like all movie anniversaries do these days: with some cool celebrations, a few heavy-handed marketing ploys, and tons of media coverage.

It made the perfect excuse to talk with my Dad about DeLorean (the man) and the DeLorean, the car that took Fox — then a bright-eyed, happy and healthy 24-year-old — to October 2015.

Special anniversary screenings took in nearly $5 million worldwide on Oct. 21, 2015, with all three films shown on nearly two thousands screens in North America, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The notion of agency in our own lives, in our ability to somehow shift the time-space continuum to suit us and the ones we love, moves me — and apparently, time has proven it has moved a whole lot of people the world over (or at least a great deal of them. (Yes, I realize it’s at least 50 percent also about the hoverboards.)

***

I set out to report on a story about DeLorean as a flawed but iconic figure in modern automotive, business and pop culture history.

The premise was this paradox: His crazy, creative passion and vision ultimately led to his downfall 30 years ago (OK, there were other reasons, too), but it’s the same crazy, creative passion and vision that is fueling Silicon Valley these days. One might even say that kind of passion left with that corps of young, ambitious engineers in the 1970s and never returned to Detroit.

Depending on who you ask, DeLorean is best remembered as a vibrant young genius with big ideas; at 42, he was (and still is) the youngest person to head a division of GM. Or he's remembered as a disrespectful jerk who didn’t abide by the rules. If you were raised as a polite child in a “proper” GM family in the ‘50s, it was the latter.

“GM was investing in innovative new products while DeLorean was criticizing them,” my Dad told me in a recent FaceTime conversation.

“When DeLorean fell from graces, we were not allowed to mention him at the dinner table,” my aunt added via Facebook.

It’s funny: These conversations didn’t take place via fax machine as imagined in the “Future” films, but they may as well have.

The technology we use to communicate fits right into the story of DeLorean, his futuristic gull-winged car, and Robert Zemeckis’ decision to cast it as a time machine.

***

For me, thinking about progress became personal.

Michael J. Fox and my father are in a race against time to find a cure to reverse the devastating effects of Parkinson’s Disease, a movement disorder that affects the central nervous system that is still rife with mystery in terms of cause and prognosis.

The Internet went crazy when Nike designer Tinker Hatfield sent Fox a new pair of the first-ever self-lacing Nike Air Mag shoes (as seen in "Back to the Future: Part II") with a letter saying that future pairs would be sold in 2016 to benefit Parkinson's research. My Dad and I celebrated, and we cried.

The paradox of "progress" is that it's become a complicated, dirty word to me as of late. Progress is needed in science, technology and in medicine to find a cure, yet progress is the same word that's used for worsening symptoms, like loss of smell, sight, speech and the ability to smile. And you never know how much time you have before the disease progresses.

Gimmicky or not, the idea that one can go back in time and tinker with things to create an alternate future seems desirable these days, especially to me. Think about what the flux capacitor could do for Fox, and for my Dad, in real life.

***

As an eager, emerging journalist, I wanted to know it all, or at least know everything there was to know about my grandfather and DeLorean.

I went down the Internet research rabbit hole and spoke with the historical archivists at General Motors, who promptly sent me news releases dating back to 1955, when my grandfather was appointed as Chief Engineer (he had first joined GM in 1951 at the Oldsmobile division).

I discovered photos of him I had never seen before, and patents and academic papers about his work I never knew existed.

Clearly, researching the DeLorean story had become the impetus for a much bigger story in my own life. But I couldn’t yet decide if DeLorean represented the past or the future. Is this a story about looking back or looking forward?

My grandfather spent the last two years of his career as the director of Forward Planning for the engineering staff at GM. His time was spent thinking only about the future, at least when it came to cars.

“Forward planning, which falls ahead of production in the time span between three years and infinity, is a multi-discipline activity in which the engineer is only one of many contributors,” my grandfather told the Society of Automotive engineers in Detroit in 1970, according to a news release I obtained from the GM archives.

He talked about “idea cars,” such as the three-wheeled “bedroom-to-office, two passenger, freeway compatible" ES-511 commuter car, which was apparently going through engineering feasibility studies.

Just like in the movie, DeLorean had taken me back in time not only to learn about my own father, but his father, too.

***

My Dad was a conscientious objector who served in the Navy in the Vietnam War for 12 months of active duty before receiving his honorable discharge notice. He lost both of his parents at a young age (his mother when he was four, his father when he was 22).

He was and is a wonderfully warm, sentimental man, but in typical “baby boomer” fashion, there were just certain things we didn’t talk about growing up. Things like war, death, loss, and anger.

But over the past few months, we’ve been talking about them, and we got to reminisce about less heavy moments, too.

There was the time my grandfather brought home a jet-engine powered car from Chrysler to do what my Dad called “an informal test drive.”

We talked about my parents’ first date in April of 1966, when my mother’s white polka-dots on her raincoat rubbed off onto the dark leather seat of my step-Grandmother’s slick new ‘66 Toronado, making it obvious she was sitting right next to him -- and not in the passenger seat where she was supposed to be.

We had a tearful conversation about what it was like to see Mike Nichols’ landmark film “The Graduate” in 1967 as a college student fearing the draft, and why it mattered then and matters now.

And we got to talk about my grandfather, who died suddenly from a heart attack after delivering another speech on forward planning in 1971, just weeks before he would have taken over as an executive vice president. He was 56.

What if he had lived? I’d go back in time any day to have just one conversation with him, to know him, to hear his voice. What would he think of my decision to be a journalist and not an engineer? Would he have endorsed Steve Jobs or Elon Musk or other forward-thinking visionaries testing the limits of technology?

***

As it turns out, DeLorean was merely a way for me to look back and forward at the same time, especially if you consider the future to be right now.

It's been a long road, but we're closer to a cure for Parkinson's than ever before, thanks to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. And my Dad and I are unraveling secrets from the past through our trip with DeLorean.

And for anyone else out there with parents near or far, sick or healthy, consider this: If the future is now, perhaps the past should be, too. If we’re manipulating the rules of space and time, are there any rules any way? You get to decide. But if I were you, I'd decide to make the time.

Thankfully, where we’re going, we don't need rules or roads, only memories, and each other. Oh, and perhaps a DeLorean, just in case.