Collectible Classic: 1981-1983 De Lorean

Eric McCandless

If you know the De Lorean only as the time-traveling car featured in the 1985 film Back to the Future, you don't know the half of it. The product of one determined man's quest to create the first commercially viable startup American car company since the 1920s, the silver two-seater is far more significant than, say, a common James Bond Aston Martin.

John Z. De Lorean's dream, however, became a vivid nightmare for many, including the investors, the management team, the dealers, and, of course, De Lorean himself, who was arrested with 100 kilos of cocaine in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to raise cash to save his bankrupt company.

Mr. De Lorean was dreaming big in 1977 when his DMC-12 ("DMC" for De Lorean Motor Company and "12" for the car's $12,000 planned price) was first shown to the public. The Giugiaro-penned bombshell would be powered by a mid-mounted engine, its doors would open vertically, and, to help it stand the test of time, De Lorean envisioned a chassis made of a corrosion-proof urethane plastic resin wrapped in brushed stainless-steel body panels.

The DMC-12's engine was initially going to be a rotary, but the Wankel proved elusive. De Lorean then considered General Motors' Iron Duke four-banger and Ford's Cologne V-6 (mounted transversely out back), but he finally chose -- and engineered the car around -- a transverse, mid-mounted Citroen four-cylinder. When Citroen executives learned of De Lorean's plans to turbocharge the engine, however, they told the American startup to, um, take its damn hands off. Plan B was a Peugeot/Renault/Volvo V-6 that required a switch to a longitudinal rear-engine layout and a ground-up chassis redesign.

When the clock struck 1979, the car that had been promised to be in showrooms wasn't even engineered. Time was of the essence, and De Lorean turned to Lotus for help. Colin Chapman and his team set about the monumental task of engineering a car from the outside in, modifying the Lotus Esprit's double-Y-shaped backbone and suspension design for rear-engine use. That the De Lorean's frame looks like an elongated flux capacitor is poetry not lost on us.

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The car is of great design. Given more money to make it right as well as reduce weight, then put in a more potent engine, similar to a Ferrari 308 and this could have been an amazing car. The authors got it right, though: the car was a huge hit in the movie and had the company lasted, that could have been the sales boom to get it going. More models would have been needed to keep it viable, however. One thing we've learned in the years since is that no car company can be a one-trick pony. Even Mini has several models and they aren't truly independent.
I often wonder what would result from marrying the DMC-12 to the Ford V8 powered Bricklin? I would think it not too hard to install a V-8 and six-spd auto in the DMC.
I wouldn't say that the pronunciation of "giga" (as used in "Back to the Future") is incorrect.Apparantly, even though the hard-G pronunciation may be ubiquitous these days (e.g. gigabytes, gigahertz) that is a relatively recent pronunciation trend. The historically favored pronunciation is with the "soft" g (i.e. "jiggawatts") rather than the "hard" G. In fact, any old-timer engineer (pre-1980s) is much more likely to use the soft-G pronunciation than the hard-G. Also (according to Wikipedia) the National Institutes of Standards and Technologies (NIST) pronunciation guide still lists the soft-G as the correct pronunciation.
I had the first DeLorean in Denver. Cost me a $5,000 premium. I dropped the transmission the first month, but really had no further problems in the three years I drove it as a daily driver, though it did not like hot weather. I loved the car, except for the low power -- it was woefully slow for such a hot design. I sold it after 3 years for half what I paid for it, but it was a fun ride for me.

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