There are only a few 1980s cars with more stories linked to them. How many of them are true and how many aren’t is hard to say. In any case, this sports coupé describes in a certain way the public execution of its builder, whose name is still not mentioned without reservations. However, the car in question is best known for three parts of the movie ‘Back to the Future’. Of course, we are talking about the DeLorean DMC-12, but at this point we will try to be neutral. After all, this car celebrates its 40th anniversary and on round birthdays one looks back on positive things. Everything stands and falls in this story with the person John Zachary DeLorean.
Background of John DeLorean
As the eldest of four sons of a Romanian father and an Austro-Hungarian mother, he was born in Detroit on January 6, 1925. Despite difficult family circumstances and few financial resources, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and later with a Master’s degree in Automotive Engineering. He then took evening classes to also earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA). After working for Chrysler and Packard, he joined General Motors in 1956. There, at Pontiac, he was promoted several times because of his talent. By 1961, he was already chief engineer, and in 1965 he was finally Head of Pontiac. Four years later, he took over the executive position at Chevrolet. Another two years later, he moved up to the GM board and became Vice President of all car and truck production in North America. In April 1973, he resigned from GM and instead became involved in the charitable National Alliance of Businessmen.
Beginnings of DeLorean Motor Company
After two years of doing charity work, John founded his own car brand, the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). His goal was to develop a vehicle that was as ecologically correct, ethical and safe as possible. This took longer than he had originally imagined. In the course of the work, he also came up with the idea of relocating production to a structurally weak region in order to create jobs. At the same time, manufacturing costs were to be lower than in North America. The choice fell on Northern Ireland, where the company cooperated with the government and chose Dunmurry as the location. The British Labour government paid the enormous sum of more than 100 million pounds to build and equip the plant as support. Added to this were tax concessions. Dunmurry was located in the heart of the IRA and had high unemployment. So 2,000 new jobs were more than welcome.
Development of the DMC-12
At first glance, it’s hard to see a sports car as particularly environmentally and ethically sound. DeLorean and his chief engineer Bill Collins began with a vehicle concept presented by the American Allstar insurance company and subsequently sold to DMC. The first prototype developed from it bore the abbreviation DSV (DeLorean Safety Vehicle). Visually, it wasn’t convincing. Therefore, the decision was made to outsource the design. The desired partner was found in Giorgetto Giugiaro and ItalDesign. There, in Italy, they drew on construction plans that Giugiaro had originally submitted to Porsche for the 928. Overall, the smooth lines corresponded to other ItalDesign cars of the era, such as the Audi Coupé, the Maserati Quattroporte III or the Maserati Merak. After the design was finalized in the fall of 1975, it took until early 1977 before a first road-ready prototype was completed at Kar Kraft in the USA. This was used to test various engines, including those from Ford and Citroën.
Determining the technical data
Both the three-liter Ford V6 and the two-liter four-cylinder engine from the Citroën CX failed because of insufficient power. Initially, DeLorean negotiated with Citroën about turbocharging the engine, but the French manufacturer refused to do so because of the warranty. So the second DMC prototype, which was built at Creative Industries towards the end of 1977, received the then new PRV-V6 engine. This 2.7-liter V6, which had been jointly developed by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo, powered various vehicles from the late 1970s onwards. In the case of the DeLorean, the weight and size of this engine led to a redesign of the rear section. The original mid-engine concept was transformed into a rear-engine car by shifting the installation points to the rear. At the same time, due to the long development time, Giorgetto Giugiaro insisted on adapting his design to the changing spirit of the times. Sharp edges became curves. In some details, the production version took on aspects of the Asso di Fiori Concept presented in 1979.
Production development at Lotus
Without consulting his chief developer Collins, DeLorean approached Porsche to have the chassis and final production version of his sports car developed. Behind the scenes, some investors and especially the British government were already digging in their heels, as the plant in Northern Ireland already existed but the car was still not in production. Porsche turned down the order because, in view of the development status to date, it was estimated that it would take at least five years until it would be production ready. DeLorean was only prepared to accept a maximum of two years. Finally, he agreed with Colin Chapman at Lotus to have the development work continued there. In the following tim, up to 200 Lotus employees were working on this project, developing a completely new chassis with components from the Lotus Esprit. Bill Collins quit for good. Above the new chassis remained the stainless steel-planked plastic body with gullwing doors, designed by Giugiaro.
Many advance orders, weak demand later
With a kerb weight of 1.3 tons, the production car was well above comparable competitor products. At the same time, however, the catalytic converter version only provided 97 kW/132 hp to get the car moving. The first test reports in 1981 were correspondingly disappointed. Motor journalists had been promised a veritable sports car in advance. The result was a sports coupé that was at best sporty in corners and had a relatively high price (around 75,000 DM in Germany in 1982). Nevertheless, more than 20,000 pre-orders for the DMC-12 had already been received before series production started in March 1981. In addition to the driving performance, undiscovered flaws of the concept and poor build quality led to steadily declining demand. Northern Irish workers at the new plant first had to be trained on the complexities of building a car. At the same time, the American automotive market was in crisis in the early 1980s. This meant that the targeted production capacities couldn’t be fully utilized.
Decline of the company
In return for the high loan amounts, the debtors, above all the British government, demanded that the interest be paid on time. In order to be able to float the newly founded parent company DMH (DeLorean Motor Holding) on the stock exchange and thus bring new money into the company, John DeLorean had the production figure doubled in mid-1981. As a result, several hundred DMC-12s were soon sitting on stockpiles in Belfast, as there wasn’t enough demand throughout the dealer network. In search of new capital, DeLorean eventually fell into the trap of a DEA investigator. He had allegedly tried to deal with cocaine, but this couldn’t be proven in court. In the UK, he was also charged with embezzling investors’ money. His company DMC therefore had to file for insolvency in 1982 and was eventually liquidated completely. By this time, around 9,000 DeLorean DMC-12s had rolled off the production line. Further vehicles have since been built from remaining spare parts and body shells.
DMC-12 at RM Sotheby’s
Shortly after John DeLorean’s cocaine bust, which attracted a lot of media attention, demand for the DMC-12 suddenly increased. In the USA, the price for the remaining new cars at times rose to over $ 50,000. Some vehicles received colorful paint jobs for the sale. Actually DeLorean had offered the car only with unpainted stainless steel body. Finally, the DMC-12 got special fame as a time machine in the movie trilogy ‘Back to the Future’ (1985, 1989 and 1990). Nowadays, fans worldwide preserve their vehicles with much love. RM Sotheby’s will offer a 1982 DMC-12 at its Open Roads online auction from Feb. 19-28. In 2018, DMC Florida provided this car with extensive maintenance to all interior elements. At the same time, a new brake system, rebuilt steering rack, new water and fuel pumps, new radiators and a new exhaust system went in and on the car.
Images: DeLorean, RM Sotheby’s