Editor’s Note: Read more unknown and curious design origin stories here.
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.