DMC DeLorean: The troubled past of the car that went back to the future
Published 15th May 2019
DMC DeLorean: The troubled past of the car that went back to the future
The unpainted stainless steel body, the gull-wing doors, the rear-mounted engine. When John DeLorean set out to create his own sports car, he knew these features would set it apart from everything else.
It was 1973 and DeLorean, a handsome engineer from Detroit, had just left his job as the youngest division head in General Motors' history to establish his own business, the DeLorean Motor Company, or DMC.
It would not be a smooth ride. DMC would end up bankrupt less than a decade later and DeLorean himself would be arrested by the FBI in a cocaine trafficking sting operation. But, in a way, the gamble paid off: His car, despite its flaws and troubled genesis, found a place in history. And it might even secure a second life.
'Tesla of its day'
DeLorean had wanted to make an "ethical" sports car: safe, fuel-efficient and long-lasting. It was the Tesla of its day, according to Stephen Wynne, who acquired the DeLorean inventory in 1997 and is CEO of the now-resurrected DeLorean Motor Company.
"DeLorean was a maverick who wanted to break away from the industry and do things his own way," Wynne said in a phone interview. "At that time, the auto industry was in a slump. There was nothing exciting going on. So John DeLorean had the pick of the litter, as far as who he wanted to work for him -- and he had the best of the best."
For the shape of the car, DeLorean approached Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had styled sports cars for Maserati and Alfa Romeo, as well as a number of Volkswagen mainstays, such as the original Golf. Giugiaro based the DeLorean on a 1970 concept car he had created for Porsche, called "Tapiro," which was similarly wedge-shaped and, most importantly, sported a stainless steel body with gull-wing doors.
"It's a stunning car to look at -- it was then and it still is now," said Wynne. "There's no way it cannot grab your attention."
Made in Belfast
By 1976, DeLorean had a prototype. Its chassis was made from fiberglass, using an innovative molding process that offered extreme resistance in case of a crash. The car was also mid-engined, like the best thoroughbred race cars.
But in the end, the chassis technology was abandoned in favor of a more conventional process, and the engine was moved from the middle to the rear, to accommodate a V6 powertrain developed by Peugeot, Volvo and Renault for their family cars. The move affected handling, and would become one of the most criticized aspects of the final production model.
DeLorean initially wanted to build the car in Puerto Rico, and even signed a preliminary agreement to build a factory on the site of a former US Air Force base. But then he got a better offer from the British government, who convinced him to set up shop in Northern Ireland.
The company received a reported $120 million in government grants to build a 550,000-square-foot plant in Dunmurry, near Belfast, with a capacity to produce 30,000 cars and employ 2,000 people. But the three-week delay in shipping the cars across the Atlantic and a bad exchange rate would be costly to its business model.
DeLorean wanted to sell the car for $12,000, which is why it is also known as the DMC-12. But when it launched in 1981, the car retailed for $25,000 -- around $70,000 in today's money -- and the price was raised to $29,825 in 1982 and $34,000 in 1983. It would prove difficult to convince drivers to choose a DMC DeLorean over established competitors like the Corvette, which at the time cost around $16,000.
Nevertheless, the firm managed to get the car into production just 28 months after the plant had broken ground, and the first DeLoreans rolled off the line in January 1981.
A fleet of 9,000
Not all DeLoreans were created equal: Several improvements were made between the first production cars and the latest ones, as production techniques developed and workers acquired more skills. The first wave of cars had quality control issues, which didn't help with sales and resulted in negative press in the US.
Critics were most disappointed by its lack of power. The engine produced a puny 130 horsepower, and the car took over 10 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph -- at least three seconds slower than competing Porsches and Corvettes. But its devilish good looks kept the firm afloat.
Soon, the odds started mounting against DeLorean. DMC was running out of money and was desperate for cash. In October 1982, John DeLorean was arrested in a videotaped sting by the FBI, during which he agreed to bankroll a fake cocaine smuggling operation in the hope it would provide his company with a cash influx. A week later, DMC filed for bankruptcy. Production lasted until 1983, with only around 9,000 cars made in total.
DeLorean was eventually acquitted of all charges after two years, when a jury unanimously decided that the FBI had illegally entrapped him. But by then, his company was gone and its factory had shut down. When asked if he would return to the car business, he responded: "Would you buy a used car from me?"
After DMC went bankrupt, its entire stock was acquired by an Ohio company that sold the remaining cars for just over $21,000 each. But shortly after its demise, the DeLorean unexpectedly rose again.
Back to the future
In 1981, filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were writing a script in which a teenager traveled back in time using a time machine built from a refrigerator. By 1984, with "Back to the Future" in production and John DeLorean still on trial for drug trafficking, the refrigerator had made way for something far more iconic.
The off-piste decision to pick a DeLorean for Doc Brown's plutonium-powered time machine immortalized the vehicle and spawned a secondary market of enthusiasts hoping to recreate the movie version of the car. Three cars were built for filming, and the "hero," or lead vehicle, is today on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Wynne's present-day DeLorean Motor Company has over 4 million original parts left over from unmade cars, which it uses to refurbish old DeLoreans to near-factory condition.
"DeLoreans have gone up so much in value recently," he said. "We sell DeLoreans that are worth having, cosmetically nice, mechanically nice. And they go for about between $50,000 and $60,000. I'll spend about 25 to 30 grand on each to get them to that standard."
Interest in the tempestuous life of John DeLorean also appears to be on the rise. Alec Baldwin is playing the Detroit engineer in a "hybrid" documentary titled "Framing John DeLorean," set for release later this year, while George Clooney's production company is involved in an upcoming DeLorean biopic.
In 2016, Wynne, who now runs the company out of Texas, announced that he would use his leftover parts to build new DeLoreans from scratch. He said that he's been unable to proceed, however, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a government agency, has not yet released legislation concerning the production of low-volume replica cars.
In the meantime, Wynne is toying with the idea of making a completely new DeLorean -- a modern vehicle that could take the form of an electric vehicle or SUV.
"The brand strength is there," he said. "The first decade was drug deals and bankruptcy, the second decade was people thinking it was the movie prop car. But now it's back to people thinking of it as a good, solid classic car that was very innovative -- and very desirable."