OK, let’s just get this out of the way. Yes, the DeLorean DMC-12 did star in that 80s Hollywood super grosser were the bloke in a gilet travels back in time and cops off with his mum – basically, a H.G. Wells rip-off with an Oedipus complex thrown in for good measure. Originally, the time machine was going to be based on a radioactive refrigerator, but the directors decided that it would make shooting a lot easier if it were a slightly more mobile contraption.

In reality, the story behind the car’s brainchild would make a far more entertaining R-rated bio-pic in its own right. The 6’ 4” Detroit born John Z DeLorean was the Golden Boy of GM’s Pontiac division throughout the 1960s, and is credited for getting their iconic pony car, the ’64 GTO, into production and completely revitalised the Pontiac brand. A larger-than-life character, and a shameless self-publicist, DeLorean climbed GM’s corporate ladder to the No.2 spot before quitting to pursue his dream of building a luxury grand tourer of his own.

delorean doors open

DeLorean had envisaged a rear-mounted 200bhp rotary engined sports car taking design cues from the Lotus Esprit and the Porsche 911, cars that he saw as his key rivals in the lucrative American market. On the early prototype the sharply styled brushed steel bodywork (penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design) sat on a revolutionary reinforced plastic chassis. However, this was abandoned in favour of a more traditional Lotus inspired set up when engineers discovered that the rear-mounted engine and gearbox would fly forward and puree its occupants in crashes over 25mph (cringeworthy footage of these early crash tests can still be found on YouTube).

The “12” in the DeLorean’s moniker was to intended to reflect its planned purchase price of $12,000, which would have put it on par with America’s only sports car rival; the Corvette C3. However, when the car was launched in 1981 the US smog cops had strangled the DMC-12’s lacklustre Volvo B28F powerplant (yes, the same V6 found in the caravanners’ favourite: the Volvo 760) until it was only capable of an asthmatic 130 horses. In the end spiralling costs also meant the first production DeLoreans had a list price of $25,000.

Building his production facility on the frontline of Belfast’s sectarian divide at the height of The Troubles probably didn’t help with teambuilding among its inexperience workforce. In fact, build quality was so bad that there was another factory set up in the States just to fix the imported DeLoreans’ shoddy panel fit and various electrical snags before they were palmed off to customers. Despite this the car remained a temperamental beast and breakdowns were common; even the novelty of gull-wing doors soon wore off on its US owners … presumably because Americans found it tricky at the drive-thru to snatch their supersized Big Macs through its tiny cut-out windows.

delorean DMC

Luckily, for John DeLorean, in the early ‘80s most Yanks had little first-hand experience with fine handling sports cars; wafty muscle cars were still in vogue and many actually spec’d the slow-witted 3-speed auto in their DMC-12s. Nevertheless, the car was slated in the American motoring press – interestingly, no British journalists were ever allowed to roadtest the factory cars. In fact, performance was so disappointing that in Back to the Future Parts II and III the technicians shoehorned air-cooled flat-6 Porsche lumps into the two cars used for filming scenes where the OUTATIME DeLorean needed a proper turn of speed.

The rest of John DeLorean’s sorry story involves cocaine smugglers, misappropriated government grants and rumours of meddling from the IRA. When DMC finally went bust in late 1982 2,500 jobs, and £70 million purloined from the British tax payer, were lost. £10 million was never accounted for; Colin Chapman, who had consulted on the project, was implicated in the scandal and could have been facing ten years porridge had he not died of a heart attack before the dodgy dealings were discovered.

An estimated 9,000 DMC-12s were built before the bailiffs were called in and everything was sold off (it’s thought that the huge body dies that stamped out the stainless panels ended up as net weights on a deep sea fishing trawler). The very last DeLorean, built in 1983 from remaining spare parts, was a hideous gold plated special edition with matching wheels and a tan brown interior – expect to see this on the American version of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding sometime in the future.

With even the newest DeLoreans now well past their 30th birthday Car Club 18-30 waves a cheery goodbye to the dreadful DMC-12. Badly built, under-powered and over-priced – if they really were capable of time travel then I would happily send every single one back to August 79 AD and park them in a field somewhere near Pompeii.

photos: Rich Duisberg, Chemist80 & Tony Alter

About The Author

Darryl can usually be found up to his elbows in some unloved piece of BL detritus when he isn’t snapping and scribbling for various print magazines or producing the book on road tripping or tally-ho adventurers. As an occasional presenter on CBS's Carfection YouTube channel, his other hobbies include vintage Scalextrics, ‘60s Bang & Olufsen and dabbling in grassroots motorsport.

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