The DeLorean DMC-12 holds a place in Hollywood history as one of the most famous cars to appear in cinema. Sporting gull-wing doors and stainless-steel body panels Back to the Future’s iconic time machine tickled the imagination of a generation dreaming of hoverboards and self-tying shoelaces.
With the original movie grossing over $210 million in ticket sales, you’d expect the DeLorean to enjoy the same commercial success. But what many didn’t know was that long before the first movie was released, the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) had stopped producing cars and shut down its doors in controversy.
GM’s rebel child
The story behind the DeLorean DMC-12 has more twists and turns than the three Back to the Future movies combined. From his time at General Motors (GM,) John Zachary DeLorean embodied the exact opposite of the industry’s singular ‘Detroit Mind.’ He wasn’t interested in building the same big cars that only needed to drive smoothly. He wanted cars built for speed and excitement. His strategy was simple—sell a young man’s car to the old guy.
He harped on youth culture and its fascination with performance cars. He put GM at the top of the muscle car business with the iconic Pontiac GTO, an experiment that placed a high-powered engine in a lightweight car. They fitted a 389 cubic-inch V8 engine in a midsize Pontiac Tempest, which ultimately created a new breed of brawny cars that had surplus speed and torque.
This was a hit among young drivers and baby boomers who dreamed of being street racers. This success was what he intended to replicate when he left GM and founded the DeLorean Motor Company in 1975.
Bringing the DMC-12 to life
DMC’s pioneer model was meant to usher in a line of stylish supercars for the US market. Its iconic stainless-steel outer panels and gull-wing doors were designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, an Italian designer known for his work on the Aston Martin DB4 GT Jet Concept, Chevrolet Corvair Testudo Concept, Ferrari 250 GT Concept, Bugatti EB112, and Subaru SVX.
They innovated on the car’s body structure by using a combination of fiberglass and a steel backbone chassis. The two-piece fiberglass structure was meant to keep the vehicle’s weight low. But on its own, the material lacked rigidity. To address this, engineers paired it with a steel backbone chassis whose design was similar to Lotus sports cars.
The first prototype was called the DSV-1 or the DeLorean Safety Vehicle, which appeared in October 1976. It was later referred to as DSV-12, and finally renamed DMC-12. The number 12 was derived from a targeted $12,000 MSRP upon release.
Projected timelines were very ambitious, with John promising a completed car within a year of its initial development. The company spared no cost in advertising the futuristic vehicle. Months before a single car was even completed, DMC went so far as running ads for a 24K gold plated DMC-12.
DeLorean sought government funding from different countries to build his manufacturing plant. He almost closed a deal with Puerto Rico but took up the British government’s $120 million offer to build his plant in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. The amount covered over half of his $200 million startup costs.
To bring this project to life, DMC partnered with Lotus and Renault which had experience in using plastic in performance vehicles. However, delays and unnecessary spending stalled production for two years. It was only on January 21, 1981, that the first DeLorean DMC-12 finally rolled off the line.
Falling short of expectations
For a vehicle marketed as a sports car, the DeLorean’s power and performance was underwhelming. Speed enthusiasts were unimpressed by its torpid acceleration of 0 to 60 mph in 9 seconds. Style-wise, it failed on its promise of being a customizable car.
The stainless-steel exterior was a pain to clean. Streaks and fingerprints quickly made the panels look dull. Abrasive pads were used to rub off minor scuff marks, but if you go against the grain or get a little heavy-handed, the texture of the stainless-steel panel was easily ruined. It was also very difficult to paint.
Overall delays in production caused the DMC-12’s price tag to double to $25,000. At that point, it was simply out of reach for the average car buyer. Buying a DeLorean in ’82 would be the same as buying a $63,000 car today. Riddled with quality control issues and a steep price tag, DMC car sales quickly faltered.
The British government soon withdrew its financial support and the company struggled to find new investors. DMC’s founder John DeLorean later faced charges for alleged drug dealings and misuse of company funds. In 1983, the company finally closed its doors after losing $100 million in investments and cutting a total of 2,500 jobs.
The making of a cult classic
If the founder of DMC wasn’t arrested in 1982, the iconic time machine of Back to the Future fame would’ve been a lead-lined fridge. It was Bob Zemeckis, director, and co-writer of the screenplay who suggested replacing the household appliance with a car.
He liked the DMC-12’s stainless-steel finish which gave the car its futuristic look. It also helped that John DeLorean’s trial made the car a hot topic in the news. The movie ultimately featured a heavily modified version of the DMC-12. A total of seven cars were built for the film series.
The moviemakers made several modifications to make the car look like a time machine. Marty and Doc’s story centered around reaching 88 mph–something the car barely achieved in real life. This activated the flux capacitor, a rectangular component with Y-shaped light bulbs that made time travel possible. It was powered by a nuclear fusion device aptly named Mr. Fusion, a parody on a popular coffee grinder at the time.
In interviews, actor Christopher Lloyd who played Doc Brown, mentions how difficult it was to work with the DeLorean. He recalls how it looked perfect for the movie, but frustrated stunt drivers and engineers on-set because of how frequently it needed repairs and part replacement.
Compared to unmodified versions which roughly cost $30,000 today, one of the modified DMC-12s used in the movies could easily sell for over half a million dollars.
— Back to the Future™ (@BacktotheFuture) June 10, 2019
DMC’s rebirth in America
After DMC went bankrupt, only two-thirds of the 9,000 DeLorean cars managed to survive. Dealers were understandably reluctant to do warranty work on these cars and owners found it difficult to obtain parts for the vehicles.
Consolidated Stores, an Ohio-based company known for buying overstock parts, later acquired DMC’s remaining inventory during the liquidation of its assets. They also got a hold of company documents which included complete tool and engineering drawings. Over the years, they also acquired additional parts from the suppliers of the DeLorean factory.
In 1997, the Ohio company’s complete inventory and exclusive distribution rights were acquired by Stephen Wynne. Originally from Liverpool, Wynne used to operate an independent auto service facility that specialized in European cars. As DMC-12s were practically built from Lotus and Renault parts, he quickly became the go-to guy for servicing DeLoreans.
He later entered the mail-order parts business with a partner and created a company called DeLorean One. By 1995, the partnership dissolved and he renamed the business ‘DeLorean Motor Company,’ which is now based in Houston, Texas.
A new future for the DeLorean
News of upgrades to the classic car’s design have stirred up excitement over the years. Hardcore fans need not worry as most of the rumored changes are internal. A new engine is expected to replace the underpowered drive train. It is rumored to have a mid-engine layout, churning 300 to 400 bhp with a modern V6 transplanted behind the cabin.
But as great as these upgrades sound, don’t expect the new DeLorean to roll off the line anytime soon. Despite having enough parts and complete sketches to make more of the iconic car, government regulations have held back DMC from starting production.
A law allowing low-volume vehicle manufacturing was signed in 2015. It covers the production of replicas and vintage cars which would otherwise fail current safety and environmental regulations. However, individual agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) need to come up with the specifics of the regulation. As of this writing, there is still no definite timetable when all regulation documents are expected to be completed.
No other vehicle has crashed and burned as spectacularly as the DeLorean DMC-12. While a resurgence of interest stirs hope for movie and car fans alike, the future remains unclear for this iconic car.