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.
Meanwhile, and in record time, De Lorean built an ultramodern factory in the unlikeliest of places — Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the midst of civil unrest. The first De Lorean finally rolled off the assembly line in early 1981, but it would be six more months before a batch was actually ready to be air-freighted to the United States, where the cars sold for well above their $25,000 sticker price. (By then, the DMC-12 name had died along with the $12,000 price tag.) Comedian Johnny Carson, an early investor in the company, was one of the first customers to drive his De Lorean home. Or at least try to — his alternator failed on the way.
The company itself proved no more reliable. Rumors of impending financial implosion decimated demand overnight. Rather than slow production, John De Lorean inexplicably doubled the factory’s output. Unsold inventory accumulated, tying up the company’s limited working capital and causing production to grind to a halt. In its final fight to survive, the De Lorean Motor Company was optimized to achieve profitability selling 4000 cars per year — well below the initial 10,000-unit break-even plan and a fraction of its founder’s absurd 30,000 per annum goal.
Thirty years later, you can’t drive a De Lorean without a camera-wielding pedestrian calling out, “Back to the Future!”
It makes you wonder: if the movie had come out earlier, might De Lorean have survived? With that kind of fame, surely 4000 cars could have been sold per year. Was it, irony of all ironies, bad timing that killed the car that everyone knows as the time machine?
One thing’s for sure: its looks were not to blame. Giugiaro’s hard-edged wedge, drawn in 1975, still looks futuristic today — even before the twin 90-pound doors are hoisted open. If there’s any criticism, it’s that the car’s incredibly low and wide proportions promise more performance than the French powerplant could deliver. Reaching 60 mph takes ten long seconds — it might have looked like a spaceship, but this was an executive express, not a supercar.
From the soft, reclined driver’s seat, you notice nothing of the distant 90-degree V-6’s uneven firing interval (it lacks split crankpins), only how superbly mellow it is. Like all Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injected cars, the De Lorean is a delight to drive smoothly, and the five-speed manual transmission’s shift action is surprisingly precise. The steering is modern-car quick and lacks power assist — unnecessary in a 2800-pound car with little more than a third of its weight up front. Not much feedback comes through the wheel, but the Lotus backbone’s meager torsional rigidity allows the steering column — and the rest of the interior — to rattle around over bumps.
The interior of Christopher Kiss’s 14,500-mile 1981 De Lorean is finished in the optional gray, which relieves much of the claustrophobia that bothered original road testers. Compared with modern cars and their high sills, visibility from inside the De Lorean is surprisingly good. Airflow through the tiny side windows? Not so much.
We had to restrain ourselves from asking if the paint was original, because, as we know, the De Lorean isn’t painted. Kiss gives his car an annual once-over with Ajax, just like he’s cleaning his kitchen sink — touch-ups are done with a scouring pad. And we were careful not to fondle his car too much during the photo shoot — if you think your stainless-steel fridge is hard to keep free of fingerprints, imagine a whole car in sunlight.
We couldn’t, of course, stop ourselves from trying to hit 88 mph. Dense traffic and the laid-back V-6 conspired against us, but in retrospect, hitting that speed — and inducing time travel — was unnecessary. Now that the De Lorean itself is as old as the 1950s cruisers in Back to the Future were, we already know that John De Lorean’s creation lived up to one of its main goals: being truly timeless.
2.8-liter SOHC V-6,
130 hp, 160 lb-ft
Control arms, coil springs
Multilink, coil springs
1981-1982 (with a few 1983 stragglers)
For the gull-wing doors, the stainless-steel body, the rear-mounted engine, and the historical value. Also, it’s worth about the same now as it was new. But mostly because it taught us all how to incorrectly pronounce “1.21 gigawatts.” Look out for frame rot, though: The steel backbone was dipped in epoxy so it wouldn’t rust. Ironically, that process accelerated rot by allowing moisture in through small cracks and then trapping it. Oh, and the electrical system — including the flux capacitor — is a weak spot.