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Asheville's DeLorean Dealer - Apple Tree Chevrolet/DeLorean



DeLorean DMC-12 at Grove Park Inn Asheville NC - Thanks to Alvan Judson (owner) photo by author


Over Asheville’s history, it has been host to many unique and high-end car brands. These have ranged from Rolls Royce and Auburn in the 1920s to Peugeot and Renault later in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the brands that left a short, but measured mark on the Asheville car scene is Delorean. Delorean, a company shrouded in mystery and intrigue seems like a unique, but out of place product for the Western North Carolina market. Asheville was home to the only Delorean dealer in Western North Carolina throughout the company’s history. There were only 10 Delorean dealers in North Carolina in 1981, which included cities such as Asheville, Charlotte, Concord, Conover, Durham, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Jacksonville, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. 


To understand how the DeLorean Motor Company made its way to Asheville, let’s examine John Delorean a little bit further….


John DeLorean, the company’s namesake and founder, had a long history in the automotive industry. Starting from a young age, he was enamored with automobiles. John was born January 6, 1925 as the first of four sons to Zachary and Kathryn DeLorean. His father, a Romanian immigrant, had immigrated to the United States when he was 20. He found employment as a union organizer at the Ford Motor Company. His poor English skills and lack of education prevented him from higher-paid work. John’s mother Kathryn was a Hungarian immigrant who had found work at Carboloy Products of General Electric, which made carbide tool and die products. Zachary struggled with alcoholism and his erratic behavior eventually drove Kathryn to take the DeLorean boys to Los Angeles to live with her sister for various periods. DeLorean’s parents eventually divorced in 1942. 


John was a talented student and ended up at Cass Technical High School -  a technical high school for Detroit honor students. While at Cass, he was enrolled in the electrical curriculum. His excellent academic record and musical talent on the saxophone landed him a scholarship at Lawrence Institute of Technology in Highland Park, Michigan. His studies at Lawrence were disrupted by World War II, where he served in the Army for three years. Delorean was honorably discharged in 1946 and returned to Detroit to find his mother and siblings in economic difficulty. DeLorean found employment as a draftsman for the Public Lighting Commission for a year and a half to help improve his family’s economic situation. After things stabilized, he returned to Lawrence College to finish his degree. While enrolled in college, he worked part-time for Chrysler and a local body shop. John’s brothers Jack, George and Charles became prolific in the post-war hot rod scene in Detroit, building several noteworthy Ford hotrods. 


John DeLorean CA 1941


Rather than enter the engineering workforce immediately, DeLorean began his working career selling life insurance. This helped him develop an analytical sales pitch aimed at engineers. DeLorean claimed that he sold about $850,000 worth of policies in ten months. Although he was quite successful, he found the work very dull and moved on to a job with the Factory Equipment Corporation. John would later credit his time selling life insurance as great training for becoming a good communicator and salesperson. He later would connect with a foreman at Chrysler’s engineering garage, who recommended that he apply for a job with Chrysler. One perk of Chrysler was that they ran a post-graduate educational facility called the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. This allowed DeLorean to advance his education while gaining real-world experience in automotive engineering. 


DeLorean briefly attended Detroit College of Law, but did not graduate. In 1952, he graduated from the Chrysler Institute with a master’s degree in Automotive Engineering and joined Chrysler’s engineering team. While working full-time at Chrysler, he attended night classes at University of Michigan’s Ross School of business to earn credits for his MBA degree, which he completed in 1957. 


DeLorean worked for Chrysler for less than a year, when he was offered a job with Packard as an engineer. While at Packard, he designed several improvements to the Ultramatic automatic transmission, which gave it an improved torque converter and dual-drive ranges. It was rebranded as the Twin-Ultramatic transmission. Unfortunately at this time, Packard was experiencing financial difficulties because of the rapidly changing post war automobile market. Many of the other large automobile companies like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler had begun producing affordable, mainstream products designed to cater to the rising postwar middle class. Unlike its competitors, Packard had retained its prewar notions of producing high-end, precisely engineered luxury cars for affluent buyers. For DeLorean, this company mindset had a positive effect on his work, specifically his attention to engineering detail while working under the engineering supervisor, Forest McFarland. After four years at Packard, DeLorean became McFarland’s successor as head of research and development. 


By the mid 1950s, Packard was still profitable, but struggling compared to its competitors. Packard’s president, James Nance, decided to merge the company with the Studebaker Corporation in 1954. John was considering keeping his job and moving to Studebaker headquarters in South Bend, Indiana when he got a call from Oliver Kelley, the vice president of engineering at General Motors, whom DeLorean greatly admired. Kelley offered DeLorean his choice of a job in any of GM’s five divisions: Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile. 


Around 1956, DeLorean decided to leave Packard and accepted a position at GM’s Pontiac division as an assistant to chief engineer Pete Estes and general manager, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen. Pete Estes had an Asheville connection, as he was close friends with Asheville Cadillac and Pontiac dealer, Harry Blomberg. After Estes’ first wife Cathryn passed away from cancer, Harry opened his own antique car museum in 1966, naming it the Estes-Winn antique car museum in her honor. The “Winn” part of the museum naming was a tribute to Pontiac president Lonnine Holmes’ granddaughter, Barbara Winn who died from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 15. The Estes-Winn antique car museum is still open to the public today in historic Grovewood Village, in Asheville, North Carolina. 



Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum CA mid 1990s , Asheville NC


While at Pontiac, John DeLorean rose through the ranks, working closely with Bunkie Knudsen. Knudsen was the son of the former president of GM, William Knudsen, who had been called away from his post at GM to head the war mobilization production effort at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Knudsen Knudsen was an MIT engineering graduate and at age 42, was the youngest man to head a GM division. DeLorean and Knudsen became fast friends and DeLorean would later cite Knudsen as a major influence and mentor. While at Pontiac, DeLorean produced dozens of patented innovations for the company and in 1961 was promoted to division chief engineer. 


DeLorean received public notoriety and acclaim at Pontiac in 1964, when he created the Pontiac GTO. The GTO’s name was inspired by the Ferrari 250 GTO - GTO standing for Gran Turismo Omologato. Gran Turismo Omologato was a classification for automobiles that certified that they conformed to certain specifications, such as fuel capacity and engine displacement for a standard class of automobiles, that were qualified to engage in various types of competitions. The Pontiac GTO started life as the Tempest/LeMans,which included an optional engine package that shoehorned a high performance 389 cubic inch V8 into the smaller Tempest body, which created the GTO. This combination dominated the automotive market for many years. John DeLorean received almost total credit for its success, which included its conception, engineering and marketing. His reward for the success of the GTO was a promotion to the head of the Pontiac division in 1965. 



1964 Pontiac GTO


By 1965, DeLorean was 40 years old and had broken the record for youngest division head at General Motors. He was determined to continue his string of successes with more new models. During his time at Pontiac, DeLorean had begun to enjoy the freedom and celebrity that came with his position. He spent a good deal of his time traveling to locations around the world to support promotional events. DeLorean made frequent public appearances and his edgy appearance helped solidify his image as a rebel corporate businessman. 


By the early 1970s, General Motors revenue had begun to decline, but Pontiac continued to be highly profitable under DeLorean. Despite his growing reputation as a corporate maverick, Delorean was promoted in 1969 to head the Chevrolet division, GM’s flagship marque. He had become more of a celebrity by this time and in a controversial decision, invited Ford president Lee Iacocca to serve as the best man at his second wedding to model Kelly Harmon, who was around half his age. He was invested in several major league sports teams including the San Diego Chargers and New York Yankees. DeLorean had also spearheaded the 1970 Chevrolet Nova and Vega designs. 



John DeLorean and 3rd wife, Christina Ferrare


Friction between DeLorean and other GM executives continued to cause problems for his career. DeLorean was committed to quality products, while many executives were looking to cut costs. He was so different from them in his demeanor and appearance that he never could quite fit in. By 1973, DeLorean decided to leave General Motors. Some thought that he was fired while others said that he decided to leave. GM gave DeLorean a Florida Cadillac franchise as a retirement gift and DeLorean took over the presidency of the National Alliance of Businessmen, a charitable organization with the mission of employing Americans in need founded by Lyndon Johnson and Henry Ford II. 


Despite leaving General Motors, DeLorean was by no means ready to leave the automotive industry. He decided to form his own company: The DeLorean Motor Company in 1975. 


When DeLorean set about creating his own sports car, the DeLorean DMC-12, he wanted a product that was of high quality, efficient and a good value to the customer. He chose a stainless steel body because it would never rust and be unique looking. With these qualities in mind, he was striving to develop “an ethical sports car.” When it came time to design the DMC-12, he turned to Italian designer Giorgetto Giugaro. Giugaro was a noted industrial designer who was known for a string of iconic designs in the 1970s such as the Bizzarrini Manta, VW Golf, BMW M1, Saab 9000 and Lotus Esprit. He was also noted for designing a number of Nikon Cameras such as the D800 and several Seiko wrist watches. 


John DeLorean had developed a concept car, but it was not fully formed yet. He began looking for places where he could produce the car, but by this time in history, it was very difficult to start a car company from scratch. Without any incentives or potential financing in the United States, he turned to other countries for financing, land and a workforce to produce the DMC-12. One of the better offers that came his way was presented by the British government. The British government was trying to figure out how to solve the religious clash in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics. Many of the people of Northern Ireland had been jobless for years without any major industry in Belfast. Ireland offered DeLorean a piece of land to construct a plant in Dunmurry that was basically in a swamp, a generous subsidy of around $136 million dollars to start his car company. According to reports of the time, DeLorean invested around $390,000 of his own money to get the company off the ground. 


DeLorean Motor Company, in an incredibly short time frame, began to construct their factory, hire a workforce that was very inexperienced in addition to having no automotive background and set up procedures and processes. DeLorean began reaching out to all of the Chevrolet dealers he had established relationships with while at General Motors to start forming a dealer network. In addition to all of the work of setting up the company, there were still issues with the car. Although DeLorean had a working prototype, he didn’t have a functional car that could be used for producing saleable cars. There were issues with sourcing an engine for the car, as well as suspension and handling issues. He turned to Colin Chapman of Lotus to help him resolve these issues. This resulted in completely redesigning the chassis and suspension from the original prototype vehicle.





 


The final vehicle they ended up producing was longer, more expensive and had a much more underpowered engine than originally planned. The DeLorean was equipped with a six cylinder 2.85 liter PRV (Peugot Renault Volvo) engine that produced 130 horsepower and 153 pounds of torque. The car was of moderate weight with a stainless steel body, yet it was still able to achieve close to 30 miles per gallon on the highway, which was competitive with and higher than many other sports cars in its class. The engine was mounted in the rear of the car and because of the weight distribution between the front of the car and the rear mounted engine, it did not require power steering. 


Newspapers of the time reported that DeLorean was having trouble producing enough cars to get to market and that the initial cars produced were not of good quality. Considering the hurdles he had to jump and how quickly the company was put together and the rushed development of the car, things were going considerably better than many other car companies that started and failed in the past 40 years. 


DeLorean’s network of Chevrolet dealers would end up bringing the DMC-12 to the masses. General Motors credit or GMAC (General Motors Acceptance Corporation) was the only company that would agree to finance the DeLorean. In 1981 when DeLoreans began making their way to the US market, Motor Trend reported that there were around 350 DMC dealers across the United States. Despite being produced in the United Kingdom, DeLoreans were not sold or marketed to the European market. This was in DeLorean’s master plan, but never came to fruition. This network would end up bringing the DeLorean to Asheville, North Carolina.


 Asheville’s Delorean Dealer was Apple Tree Chevrolet, Inc. - located at 205 Smoky Park Highway. This site is the current day location of Asheville Chevrolet. Apple Tree Chevrolet was founded by Richard Taylor “Dick” Lowe. Dick Lowe was born in Low Gap, Surrey County in north-central North Carolina, the eldest son of Dixie and Ruth Galyean Lowe. He had enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17, in 1943 and was discharged in June 1946 with the rank of yeoman second class V6 at Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the Philippines. 


After the war, Mr. Lowe enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated in 1952 with a BSBA degree. After graduating, Lowe started a career in the automobile dealership business that spanned 50 years, beginning when he joined a group of dealerships in West Virginia owned principally by an uncle, Tag Galyean. He came to Asheville in the late 1970s when he and members of the Galyean family purchased the well-known Parkland Chevrolet dealership. He renamed it Apple Tree Chevrolet, hoping to capitalize on the well known apple trade in western North Carolina. He then went on to add Honda and Acura franchises to the dealer. 


Lowe was one of the early adopters of Delorean, starting his franchise in 1981. The first DeLorean DMC-12 was produced on January 21, 1981. Months later, the first DeLoreans would be shipped to Asheville. The Asheville Citizen times reported on September 2nd, 1981 that the “Dream Sports Car Rolls into Asheville.” It was unveiled at the Grove Park Inn on Monday, August 31st, 1981. The particular car that was unveiled to the public at Grove Park Inn was owned by Asheville restauranteur Burney Burke. Apple Tree displayed Burke’s car for an entire week at their showroom before delivering it to him. 


Lowe purchased $25,000 worth of stock, according to the Citizen-Times in order to become a Delorean Franchisee. The Citizen-Times reported that Lowe had orders for several more cars and expected to sell 25 to 50 vehicles he had ordered from Delorean’s factory in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At the time, Lowe believed that the Delorean would be competitive with Mercedes, the Chevrolet Corvette and the Porsche 928. 

Several of Lowe’s mechanics at Apple Tree had to go to special training to be able to work on the Deloreans. The sole mechanic who attended training for servicing the DeLorean DMC-12 was Ernest Baldwin. Baldwin had previously been the head Corvette tech at Apple Tree Chevrolet. In addition to the mechanical training, staff in the body shop and parts department had to learn special body work techniques to be able to repair the stainless steel body panels of the Delorean. Because these were the most expensive parts of the car, Delorean preferred that dents and dings were massaged out of the body panels, rather than replacing them. General manager Krafton Locke was lucky to obtain a DMC-12 for his demonstrator car, which he was able to use as personal transportation. 



Recreation of DeLorean DMC-12 at the Omni Grove Park Inn, photo by author


Many Ashevillians were interested in the car, but there were few serious buyers. One buyer that was serious was Rex Ballard, of Ballard Appliances in South Asheville. Rex entered the Apple Tree Chevrolet late one afternoon in his older work clothes. He had seen a picture of a DeLorean while visiting a friend of his who was a top Cadillac and Chevrolet dealer while on a trip to Florida. He knew at that moment that he had to have one! During the same visit, Rex and his dealer friend had the opportunity to eat lunch with John DeLorean. He remembered John as being very tall, yet approachable and down to earth. When he returned to Asheville, he set about getting one. Unfortunately, his visit to the dealer did not go as planned. As he approached the DeLorean in the showroom at Apple Tree, it was roped off and being watched by a bored salesman sitting next to it. Rex asked if he could sit in the car and the salesman told him it was “for serious customers only” and that he didn’t look serious. Rex quietly walked out of the dealer, fuming after his experience. He decided while on a shopping trip with his wife to Atlanta that he would set about finding a DeLorean while down there. He ultimately ended up buying a DeLorean at Hub Motor Company, which was strangely a Ford dealer and ended up keeping it for many years, only driving it sparingly.


Sadly, the DeLorean company continued to have significant financial struggles, which left it short on cash to continue operations and expansion. This led John DeLorean to look around for other investors and financing opportunities as the British government refused to provide any other financing for the fledgling car company. John ended up seeking assistance from a friend, who was working secretly with the Federal Bureau of Investigations. This investor seemingly was a banker that could help provide financing. As conversations went on with this friend, things started to go sideways. The investor mentioned that the financing would come from the sale of narcotics, rather than a bank. DeLorean claimed that when he tried to back out, his friend/investor threatened the life of DeLorean and his family. When DeLorean reached out to his attorney, he advised him to play along with it until he could safely stay away. DeLorean was called to attend a meeting in a Las Angeles hotel room with these financiers. The meeting was actually a set up, coordinated by the FBI. The room was bugged with microphones and cameras. A suitcase full of cocaine was brought out to John DeLorean and the wannabe gangsters asked DeLorean what he thought of his new financing, to which he replied “it’s as good as gold.” At that moment, Federal agents rushed into the hotel room and put DeLorean in handcuffs, taking him away. 


On October 19, 1982 DeLorean was charged by the US Government with trafficking cocaine. DeLorean went to jail, but was released on bond. He would later be acquitted of these charges as it was ruled that the Federal government had entrapped him. On Wednesday, October 27th, the Asheville Citizen Times reported on Lowe’s dealer in the wake of the DeLorean drug smuggling scandal. Lowe was optimistic that the remaining cars he had would sell and that things might level out after the scandal blew over. Because of the scandal and the Lowe production numbers of DeLoreans, Lowe predicted that they would someday become collector cars. This prediction would one day come to fruition. Sadly, DeLorean’s legal troubles had caused harm to his personal and the company’s reputation. With a political change in the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher was not willing to extend any more of the government’s money to the failing car company. 


The Delorean Motor company ended up filing for receivership and was bankrupt by October of 1982. According to Delorean Museum records, Apple Tree Chevrolet only sold 8 cars in Asheville. According to the museum records, when these 8 cars were sold, Apple Tree did not send the required paperwork back to the Delorean Motor Company for their warranties, so it is not known who their original owners were. DeLorean’s records are not entirely complete, as many of the Delorean records were destroyed at the time of the company closing so it is not known approximately how many Deloreans were sold at Apple Tree Chevrolet. At the time they debuted, the cars were priced at $25,000 to $26,000, which is equivalent to around $90,000 in 2024 dollars. At this time, auto finance rates were hovering between 17-18% APR. Although there were many wealthy buyers in Asheville at this time, this was a very niche market for this car and price range. The remaining stock of DeLoreans and parts were sold off shortly after from Apple Tree. Apple Tree would later move from their Smoky Park Highway location after selling the Chevrolet franchise. They built their current location on airport road in 1986 and focused solely on Honda and Acura going forward. 


Three years after the DeLorean Motor Company ceased operations, the movie Back to the Future would be released, cementing the DeLorean DMC-12 into popular culture. Sadly, this portrayal of the DeLorean if it had come sooner, could have potentially saved the company. The DeLorean had also cemented its legacy in Asheville’s culture with a unique board game. In 1982, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce created a board game called “All About Asheville,” which included local businesses as stops and coupons to patronize them. One of these businesses was Apple Tree DeLorean. 




All about Asheville Board Game, Chamber of Commerce 1982


Pieces for Apple Tree DeLorean and Apple Tree Chevrolet in "All About Asheville"


If you have any other information on DeLoreans in Asheville or if you purchased a DMC-12 brand new from Apple Tree Honda, please contact us at mountaineermotortours@gmail.com. We continue to search for pictures of DeLoreans and stories of their owners in Asheville. We are also looking for pictures of the Apple Tree Chevrolet and DeLorean at this location.


Note: This blog is not meant to serve as a comprehensive history of John DeLorean, but to give context and history about the company to support the history of DeLorean in Asheville. 


Sources:


-Conversation with Rex Ballard - 1/30/24

-Conversation with Kenny Roberts - 1/5/24

-Conversation with Krafton Locke - 1/5/24

-Conversation with Tommy Bell - 1/29/24


DeLorean Auto History: What Happened to the Company | TIME  (Gold plated Delorean in the American Express Catalog)





DeLorean Dealer Listing, 1981



Asheville Citizen-Times. (September 2, 1981). Delorean Debut in Asheville. Newspapers.com. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-delorean-debut-i/138434632/


Asheville Citizen-Times. (October 27, 1982). Delorean in Asheville. Newspapers.com. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-delorean-in-ashe/131760495/



Asheville Citizen-Times. (February 28, 1982). Delorean Asheville. Newspapers.com. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-delorean-ashevil/131760550/


Asheville Citizen-Times. (March 21, 2005). John DeLorean Obituary. Newspapers.com. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-john-delorean-ob/139880495/


Asheville Citizen-Times. (July 13, 2003). Obituary for Richard Taylor Lowe. Newspapers.com. Retrieved February 10, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-obituary-for-ric/137959593/











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