The automotive world is definitely not immune to the realm of conspiracy theories. Some are so obviously false that if you believe them, you may as well head to Roswell, New Mexico to crash a dinner party between aliens and the Illuminati. Others, though, are the sort of plausible and semi-plausible stuff that movies are actually made of.
1. John DeLorean was framed by the government to look like a cocaine dealer
The theory: Despite being a one-time rising star at General Motors, DeLorean pissed off a lot of people at GM and left under somewhat icy conditions. He went on to author a heavily critical book about GM, and of course founded his eponymous DeLorean Motor Company. When the latter was in the midst of financial turmoil, one of his neighbors turned into a confidential informant for the FBI, and approached him about a mega coke deal in the eight figure range. For his part, DeLorean jumped at the opportunity, thinking the money could help the company, and was caught on tape by the feds. He claimed entrapment, won, then proceeded to publicly accuse GM of being behind the whole thing to prevent DMC from reaching success.
The facts: The neighbor-turned-informant was a career criminal who approached DeLorean instead of the other way around, and that invalidated the state’s evidence. DeLorean claimed until his death that GM was behind it. The government was indeed guilty of entrapment, though that's different from outright framing—DeLorean really was all set to move on somewhere between $17 and $24 million dollars of coke; the state just had inadmissible evidence. The notion that GM was somehow behind the whole thing was the paranoid plea of a disgraced former executive.
2. "Big Oil" murdered the inventor of the diesel engine
The theory: Rudolf Diesel’s invention was much more efficient than the gasoline engines of the day, and could run so well on peanut oil alone that many people couldn’t tell a difference. While he was on a boat en-route to meet with British navy representatives about military applications, he “fell” overboard.
The facts: Diesel was also nearly destitute, left a bag full of money with his wife before he left, and even marked a cross on the date of his death in his own diary. His death was clearly a suicide, but that didn’t stop the day’s tabloids from running with the story.
3. Detroit's Big Three sank the Tucker Torpedo
The theory: When Preston Tucker unveiled plans for the radically advanced Tucker 48, a.k.a. the Tucker Torpedo, Detroit’s big three automakers sprang into action to block it: Labor unions wouldn’t produce parts, contracts were blocked, and industry-friendly senators threw Tucker before the SEC on trumped up charges of fraud.
The facts: Tucker was a showman more than he was a businessman, and he loved to show his car off, even in its early prototype state. Those that didn’t understand how the industry worked thought Tucker was a fraud because the 48’s prototype was pieced together from various outdated parts, and speculation ran rampant that he never intended to produce the cars, preferring instead to pocket millions in government grant money. After a lengthy trial during which the Tucker factory was shut down, Preston Tucker was acquitted, but the Tucker 48 was already dead. In truth, Tucker was hardly a threat to the industry, so there was simply no need on the part of the automakers to do anything. While they wouldn’t have been too keen to help out, the notion that the Big Three took direct action to scuttle Tucker is a stretch.
4. Porsche actively engages in historical cover-ups
The theory: Contrary to the official stories, the VW Beetle, Porsche 356, and the Porsche 911 weren’t designed by any member of the Porsche family. With the Beetle, theories about the car’s true origins range from a Jewish man named Josef Ganz who designed a very similar car several years earlier, to Ferdinand Porsche outrightly copying significant chunks of another, even more similar car built by Tatra. And then there's the story of Erwin Komenda. He designed the Beetle, the 356, and the 911, only to have his personal archive, literally his life’s work in design sketches, taken posthumously, after bequeathing it to Porsche on his deathbed—according to his family, while under diminished mental capacity. The story goes that this allowed Porsche to call Ferdinand Porsche the father of the VW, Ferry Porsche the father of the 356, and Butzi Porsche the father of the 911.
The facts: Porsche (the company) doesn’t deny Komenda’s involvement in the company’s history one bit, though it understandably draws attention to the roles of the Porsche family whenever possible. Komenda was Porsche’s chief designer—it’s kind of hard to hide something like that. There’s a fundamental distinction to be made here between a careful cultivation of brand imagery and active coverups. Did significant chunks of the Beetle come from another car? The only certainty is that there was a lawsuit about that, and that seven figures were paid to Tatra after WWII. While Butzi Porsche was studying under Komenda, work on what would eventually become the 911 commenced, and obviously no single man designs cars in a vacuum. Interestingly, most of the claims seem to arise from Komenda's descendants, who have their own reasons for wanting Erwin to command a larger historical role.
5. General Motors led a coalition of companies hell-bent on killing electric streetcars in the 1940s
The theory: GM, Firestone, Mack Trucks, Phillips Petroleum, and Standard Oil each had a vested interest in seeing streetcars die off. Of course, their move was to invest heavily. Collectively, they bought the majority of streetcar operations in the United States...then killed them off. If you remember Judge Doom’s crazy plan in “Roger Rabbit” to kill the Red Cars in favor of gas stations, tire salons and car dealerships alongside freeways, that’s exactly what this is.
The facts: The companies were taken to court on charges arising from antitrust legislation and convicted of conspiracy to form a monopoly for buses, and to manipulate the economy for things buses tend to need, like gasoline and tires. Much debate has waged over the years as to whether those actions actually impacted the country, or if the streetcars would have died out anyway as the country evolved. This really happened. It wasn't some nefarious plot, however; it’s just business.
6. The guy who runs Formula One today participated in The Great Train Robbery
The theory: Bernie Ecclestone was a small time race car driver and manager in the 1950s, before dropping out of motorsports entirely for years. In 1963, one of the most daring train robberies of modern times took place, utilizing a former racer as the getaway driver—a known associate of Ecclestone’s. Flash forward to the late 1960s, and Ecclestone is suddenly wealthy "via property," most of the robbers are behind bars, and the most influential man F1 has ever known is on his way to the top.
The facts: Some of the participants were never captured, so Bernie’s participation is certainly plausible, but Ecclestone has been accused of myriad wrongdoings over the years that make this look like amateur hour—things like bribing bankers in $30,000,000,000 deals. He manages to sidestep each charge with admirable savvy, often discussing selected aspects of the case publicly. Rumors of his involvement with the Great Train Robbery have been around from the very beginning. His public comments? “There wasn't enough money on that train; I could have done something better than that.” If he were involved, someone would’ve talked by now.
7. GM hired prostitutes to discredit Ralph Nader
The theory: After Nader publicly slammed GM's safety and engineering with regard to the Corvair in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, GM would stop at nothing to get him to shut up. It went so far as to hire private investigators to follow his every move, and even sent in prostitutes to get pictures of him in compromising situations.
The facts: Nader took GM to court, ultimately settling for the 2015 equivalent of just over $3,000,000 after some legal wrangling meant he could go after the company for “overzealous" surveillance. The girls that were sent over? Yeah, that happened, too.
8. Car manufacturers deliberately designed cars to fail after a few years
The theory: Manufacturers introduced "planned obsolescence"—deliberately designing parts in such a way that they’ll begin to fail right around the time your eye starts wandering toward a newer model—thus encouraging you to keep taking out more loans and buying more cars in an endless cycle.
The facts: Car manufacturers can build cars that last a hell of a lot longer than they do, but they’d cost a lot more to make, and consumers won't pay for that. Say you’ve got a ten year old car in perfect mechanical condition. It doesn’t have any of the features you see on half of the other cars on the road. You want those, so you trade your car in. Now, why would you want to pay for more engineering to have a longer operational life when you didn’t utilize what you had? Put simply: cars designed to last forever makes as little economic sense for you as it does for the manufacturers. That's not planned obsolescence, that's efficiency.