With the demise of John De Lorean's car, entrepreneurship in the automobile business may be gone forever.
At the turn of the century, the auto industry was as vibrant with small companies as the personal computer industry is today. In 1908, about 250 auto manufacturers -- a figure comparable to the number of personal computer makers today -- were crowding the market. More than 2,000 carmakers have come and gone since then, but few have challenged the established automakers since World War II. The only ones to survive found such small niches as custom-made and replica cars. The industry "is strewn with bodies," says J. Patrick Wright, who collaborated with De Lorean to write On A Clean Day You Can See General Motors. The 1979 best-seller took a critical look under the hood of General Motors, where De Lorean was once being groomed for the position of chief executive.
De Lorean may have had the best chance of any entrepreneur to shake up the ologarchic auto industry. "De Lorean had a lot going for him," says Wright, now technical consultant on a movie about the former executive. Noting that De Lorean was able to raise about $200 million for his venture and line up a network of eager dealers, he adds: "He was able to capture the American imagination by bringing out his car. There was the image that he had bucked the system and had all sorts of things going for him. So if a guy out there is thinking about it, this can be very discouraging."
Despite De Lorean's acquittal on drug charges, Wright says he probably won't have another chance in the driver's seat. "I don't think you'll ever see him return to the auto industry. He's not going to work for a major auto company, and I suspect his days as an auto entrepreneur are over."