Becoming one of Hollywood’s most famous cars wasn’t easy.
Born in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, the DeLorean DMC-12 was a brilliant idea that was poorly executed. It should have spawned a full range of innovative cars; instead, it retired after less than 10,000 cars were built, and it would very likely be all but forgotten in 2021 had it not landed a starring role as a time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. 40 years after its launch, we’re taking a look at the rise and fall of the DeLorean DMC-12:
John Z. DeLorean
Born in Detroit in 1925, John Z. DeLorean studied automotive engineering and worked for Chrysler and Packard before joining Pontiac in 1956. He played an instrumental role in overhauling the company’s image during the 1960s, notably by launching models like the GTO. He then became head of Chevrolet - GM's largest division - in 1969, and he was appointed vice president of car and truck production at General Motors in 1972.
At 48, he had, by his own account, “a better than even-odds chance of one day being [GM] president.” However, as he explained in a fascinating 1979 book, he “just didn’t fit in.” So he quit GM in 1973. Always something of a showman - he married a model, Cristina Ferrare, (pictured) who was less than half his age that same year - he was an increasingly awkward fit into GM's buttoned-down corporate culture.
The ethical sports car
Comfortably sailing into early retirement wasn’t an option for DeLorean. He wanted to build the world’s first ethical sports car, one that would be safe, fuel-efficient, and quick. Over the course of the 1970s he brought together an all-star team of engineers and designers to make his vision a reality. Lotus founder Colin Chapman (1928-1982) helped with the chassis while Giorgetto Giugiaro (born 1938) worked on design. PICTURE: 1976 DSV prototype
The project’s guidelines
DeLorean founded the company that bears his name in 1974. With early funding secured, he laid out the guidelines that shaped his ethical sports car. Its front and rear ends needed to crumple when hit, its cabin needed to be big enough to accommodate tall, well-fed Americans like DeLorean himself, who stood 6’4”, it had to use a stainless-steel body that wouldn’t rust - an enormous problem that decade - and it needed gullwing doors to help the car stand out.
Most of these points addressed common concerns with sports cars in the 1970s: they tended to be unsafe, cramped, and rust-prone. The gullwing doors were added for style. Finally, DeLorean decided power would come from a rotaryengine. Called DeLorean Safety Vehicle (DSV), the first prototype (pictured) made its debut in 1976.
Advanced, but affordable
DeLorean named its first car DMC-12. It chose the 12 because it planned to launch the car with a base price of $12,000, which represents about $55,500 in 2021. In 1976, cars positioned in that price bracket included the Porsche 912E ($10,845). Chevrolet charged $7605 (around $35,200) for the Corvette that year.
From rotors to pistons
DeLorean’s plans to power the DMC-12 with a Wankel engine fell through because the technology was unceremoniously drummed off the stage, so it evaluated a number of available piston-powered engines on both sides of the pond, including a four-cylinder from Citroën. It finally settled on the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) V6 used in a wide selection of cars including the Peugeot 604, the Alpine A310, the Renault 30, and the Volvo 264.
While the PRV wasn’t a prestigious engine by any means of measurement, it was a robust, well-engineered unit that was already compliant with American regulations. However, using the six meant making the car rear-engined, not mid-engined as DeLorean planned. At least the former layout allowed for some space behind the seats for golf clubs.
Made in Northern Ireland
If making the DMC-12 in the continental United States was ever an option, it was canned quickly in favour of a location overseas. DeLorean examined potential production sites in Western Europe and in Puerto Rico before tax breaks and generous loans lured it to Northern Ireland. Government officials saw the DeLorean factory as the perfect opportunity to create much-needed jobs on the west side of Belfast during The Troubles, so the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) poured at least £77 million (roughly $140 million at the time and maybe $540 million today) into the project.
DeLorean began building its factory and test track in Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast, in October 1978. It planned to launch DMC-12 production in 1979, but numerous delays marred the project.
American Express gold
An immense amount of hype surrounded the DMC-12 before its launch. American Express advertised a variant of the car whose exterior was plated in 24-carat gold in its 1980 Christmas catalogue. Prices started at $85,000 ($271,400 in 2021 terms), and interested buyers needed to send the company a $10,000 deposit. At least seven did, according to a Time magazine report published in October 1980.
Late, and not quite right
DeLorean recruited about 340 dealers in the United States during the late 1970s. They finally began receiving the DMC-12 in 1981, but they quickly realised that the first cars off the production line suffered from a wide variety of quality issues. DeLorean established a network of Quality Assurance Centres across America to fix most of the major problems before the cars reached customers.
The DMC-12, by the numbers
Motorists in the market for a DMC-12 in 1981 had to pay $26,175, a figure that represents about $75,800 in 2021 terms; it wildly exceeded the $12,000 target price set by DeLorean. Power came from a 2.8-liter V6 that developed 132 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque. Mounted behind the passenger compartment, it drove the rear wheels via either a standard five-speed manual transmission or an optional three-speed automatic.
Period reports pegged the DMC-12’s 0-60mph time at 8.5sec and its top speed at 130mph, figures that weren’t great for a pricey sports car even in the early 1980s.
When all was said and done, DeLorean had delivered a car that cost more than it should have, arrived later than announced, and wasn’t as quick as everyone hoped. The DMC-12’s career was off to a rocky start, but at least it could count on its unusual design to turn heads. That lustre soon faded, too.
Even owners whose cars had gone through one of the Quality Assurance Centres complained about electrical system failures, annoying creaks coming from the glassfibre panels under the stainless-steel body, and general quality-related problems like loose knobs. These issues took a significant toll on the DMC-12’s reputation, though DeLorean fixed many of them for the 1982 model year.
One important determining factor in DeLorean’s downfall that’s often overlooked is the 1981 recession in the United States. Partly triggered by the 1979 energy crisis, which in turn was largely caused by the revolution in Iran, it took a heavy toll on the American economy and pushed sales of luxury goods off a cliff. DeLorean continued to build cars in Dunmurry, but they often sat unsold once they arrived in America.
It asked the British government for another cash injection, but the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was not nearly as interested in funding the project as her Labour party predecessor James Callaghan. DeLorean began laying off workers.
Worried about mounting financial issues, the British government closed the DeLorean factory on October 18, 1982, after failing to find a buyer for it. John Z. DeLorean was arrested by the FBI in a hotel near Los Angeles airport shortly after his company collapsed and charged with nine counts of racketeering and drug trafficking. He was accused of conspiring to possess and distribute about 220 pounds (100kg) of cocaine to save his business. He vehemently denied the allegations, and he was acquitted in 1986; his lawyer successfully argued that the authorities had unfairly and illegally entrapped him.
DeLorean filed for bankruptcy in 1982.
DeLorean without DeLorean
An Ohio-based liquidating company named Consolidated International orchestrated a last-ditch effort to put the carmaker back on track. It purchased DeLorean’s unsold DMC-12s and, after a bitter court battle with the firm, advertised them with huge rebates in major car publications in the United States. Somewhat ironically, it presented the cars as being part of “a vanishing breed.”
Historians disagree on the exact number of DMC-12s built. What almost no one disputes is that a total of about 9200 units were built in 1981 and 1982, and that sales lasted until the 1983 model year. Most were sold new on the American market, though a handful of right-hand-drive cars were made for the British market. Some were converted by Wooler-Hodec, and a small number were built by the factory.
The unborn DMC-24
DeLorean never aimed to remain a one-car brand. It tested a twin-turbocharged DMC-12 allegedly capable of a 5.6sec 0-60mph time, though it didn’t manage to bring the model to production. It also experimented with several saloons, including one called DMC-24 and extensively outlined in a 37-page product plan published in 1981.
Giugiaro designed it and built a mock-up, but it stopped the project when DeLorean filed for bankruptcy. It unsuccessfully tried selling it to Lamborghini in 1982 as the Marco Poloconcept (pictured, with a Lamborghini emblem and DMC-12 wheels).
Back to the Future
Without Hollywood, the DMC-12 would have entered the pantheon of automotive history as yet another obscure also-ran remembered only by a small subset of enthusiasts. It became permanently embedded in popular culture when it starred as a time machine in the 1985 hit film Back to the Future.
DeLorean didn’t remain in the pantheon of automotive history for long. Stephen Wynne purchased the company’s stock of spare parts and formed the DeLorean Motor Company in Humble, Texas, in 1995. It originally sold spare parts, but it quickly turned its attention to offering fully refurbished cars. Crucially, these vehicles required a donor car and were titled as 1981, 1982, or 1983 cars; they weren’t 100% new.
The DMC-12’s on-again, off-again comeback
Armed with a vast stock of spare parts and an immense amount of experience, the born-again DeLorean Motor Company announced plans to resume DMC-12 production by 2017. It planned to take advantage of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s low-volume motor vehicle manufacturers law, which should have made it relatively easy for small companies to build a handful of cars annually.
Unfortunately, the law’s implementation was delayed until 2021, and the business case that DeLorean put together in 2015 no longer stands. It explained that some of the suppliers it planned to work with went out of business due to the global pandemic, while others are no longer interested in participating in the project. Worse yet, the engine it planned to use will no longer be emissions-compliant in 2024.
Instead, it’s considering rebooting the project around an electric powertrain. ItalDesign announced it’s working with DeLorean to bring the DMC-12 into the 21st century, and a concept will be shown in 2021.
Buying a DMC-12 in 2021
With under 10,000 built, and many driven into the ground over the past four decades, the DMC-12 is an uncommon sight. Finding one isn’t difficult, but sourcing a well-sorted example takes a great deal of patience. In the United States, prices tend to hover in the vicinity of $40,000. Fully-serviced and warrantied cars from DeLorean cost between $50,000 and $70,000. Project cars in need of substantial work trade hands for much less.
For context, RM Sotheby’s sold the 1982 example pictured above for $51,700 in 2021.
DeLorean’s later life
Crippled by sizeable debts linked to his court battles, DeLorean largely stayed out of the automotive industry during the 1990s. He patented a monorail in 1993 (United States patent number US5359941A; pictured) but never brought it to production.
He later announced plans to launch a second car company that would in many ways pick up where the first left off, and he boldly sketched the outline of a high-performance coupe with a head-turning design and an available hybrid powertrain tentatively due out in 2006. He sold watches online in a bid to partially fund it, but he died of a stroke at 80 in 2005.