The 1981-83 DeLorean DMC-12 sports car is best remembered for its flip-up doors and prominent role as the car modified for time travel in the popular "Back to the Future" movies. It wasn't a bad car, but was rather slow, overpriced and arrived too late to make much of a dent in the sports car market.
Few Americans knew much about the car, which was built in Northern Ireland by a company headed by flashy former General Motors top executive John Z. DeLorean. Only 8,583 DeLoreans were built before the company went out of business,, including several gold-plated ones for an American Express Christmas catalog.
The DeLorean DMC-12 long had a hard time topping the $12,000-$15,000 in the resale market, but now is valued at $17,500 to $30,100.
The DeLorean DMC-12's history is almost as much about John DeLorean as it is about his car. He was a brilliant auto engineer and the youngest vice president in GM history. He successfully headed General Motors' Chevrolet and Pontiac divisions, where he was behind the iconic Pontiac GTO muscle car.
Tall, handsome DeLorean was a favorite of the media and got lots of publicity while at GM because he was flamboyant, outspoken and successful. Other GM top executives were bland cookie-cutter "company men.".
DeLorean wore his hair long, married several beautiful young women and often drove exotic foreign sports cars instead of Chevy Corvettes, when GM's top executives were supposed to be seen in only GM cars. Hard-working and seemingly tireless, DeLorean may have become GM's president if he had toned down his lifestyle.
Finally, in the early 1970s, DeLorean left GM to build a "safety minded" sports car. After numerous talks with various countries, DeLorean persuaded the British government to back his car venture in severely depressed, strife-torn Northern Ireland, which had few decent jobs. It also was where England was desperate to end violence between Catholics and Protestants.
The DeLorean Motor Co. was built a shiny new factory near Belfast, which opened in December, 1980, with some 600 workers. The first car came off the line on December 3 that year. Ultimately, several thousand people reportedly held jobs in the facility, which brought relative peace to the area.
DeLorean was happy not only to get England's financial support but his automaking operation made it virtually impossible for the British government to close down the factory if things didn't go severely wrong (which they eventually did), without inciting violence in the area.
Things went wrong, partly because the DeLorean car operation began swallowing vast sums of money. They came not only from the British government, but also from Wall Street's largest brokerage and banking houses--and affluent individuals. DeLorean remained "golden" in the media, long after he left GM.
The DeLorean DMC-12 was at the center of the problems. Initially designed by DeLorean's hand-picked Americans, it soon was also given to engineers from England's Lotus racing and production car facility in that country. Lotus personnel mainly knew how to build specialized, world-class, hand-built race cars, not mass-produced passenger cars. The small number of road cars that Lotus did build were generally unreliable and had sloppy quality.
Constant battles erupted between American and Lotus personnel, and top DeLorean executives also were baffled by John DeLorean's seeming lack of interest in his car after the factory operation got underway.
By most accounts, DeLorean rarely visited the plant and didn't get involved with many of the car's design features. Rather, he reportedly spent most of his time in his New York penthouse office and traveling about, dreaming up other projects and constantly raising more money for the car operation. He'd wasted years nailing down a government that would give him maximum financial assistance to build his car.
All this led to major delays. The car should have come out years earlier for a much lower price. When new, the unproven DeLorean DMC-12 cost a stiff $25,000, when you could buy an established Chevy Corvette for about $16,000. And there weren't many buyers for the DeLorean when it debuted, partly because of its price, unproven nature and the fact that the U.S. economy was in poor shape.
Making matters worse was the fact that far too many DeLoreans DMC-12s were built for the slim U.S. market and consequently just sat in storage areas. Even established sports car producers such as Jaguar and Porsche had taken years to develop a solid market for their cars.
The most noteworthy features of the DeLorean DMC-12 were its flip-up doors and unpainted stainless steel body. The car wore no paint partly because panted cars would have raised the cost of the already overpriced auto.
Many DeLoreans, especially the first ones, had poor quality and sloppily produced interiors because there hadn't been time to train the plant's workers how to build cars. Doors leaked, and the car had electrical gremlins, among other problems.
This forced the DeLorean operation to set up several U.S. "Quality Assurance Centers." They did major reworking of the autos before delivery to dealers and ate heavily into company profits. At one point, it took 140 hours to make the DeLorean suitable for sale--at a cost of up to $2,000 per auto.
One investor in the DeLorean auto operation was national television personality Johnny Carson. After taking delivery of his new DeLorean, the car broke down after he drove it a a few miles. A new engine part was rushed to the scene, but that part also soon broke. One can only imagine how unhappy that made Carson, who had put a good chunk of money into the operation.
There seemed to be no end to glitches. The DeLorean DMC-12 had stainless-steel body panels that soon were covered in hard-to-remove fingerprints when parked in public areas. And the doors, which were difficult to close from the inside, opened upward almost purely for dramatic effect to attract buyers. In contrast, the 1950s Mercedes-Benz 300SL sports car had flip-up doors because its race-car-frame design left no room for conventional ones.
A car collector friend of mine who bought two DeLoreans DMC-12s for relatively low prices keeps a hammer on the passenger-side floor when he drives one. That's because one day the doors made it impossible to get out of the car and he had to drive to an auto service facility, which helped him escape. "If I get trapped again, and the car catches on fire, I'll use the hammer to break a window," he said.
After testing one of the first DeLoreans DMC-12s in America, I wrote for a Chicago newspaper that the car was professionally designed, but criticized its overly stiff ride and average acceleration. I said it was "for jet-setters, high rollers and those with plenty of money who want to be the first in the country club parking lot with it." It clearly needed further development.
To save money, the rear-engine DeLorean had a small, 130-horsepower V-6 used in Volvo, Peugeot and Renault family cars. The 0-60 mph time was a leisurely 9.5-10 seconds, compared with 7.2 for a Corvette and 6.3 for a Porsche. It didn't help that the DeLorean DMC-12 was overweight--it had too much luxury equipment for a zoomy sports car at that time.
Still, the DeLorean DMC-12 looked racy, and its steering, braking and handling were good. After all, world-championship Lotus knew a thing or two about such things. The body was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, who reportedly based its styling on a 1970 design exercise he'd done for Porsche.
Success mainly depended on strong U.S. sales. But sales were only moderately decent here during early 1981. DeLorean nevertheless kept trying to sell too many cars in a limited sports car market with a marginal car during a bad economic period.
Then things fell apart financially and the operation collapsed in 1982, with a few 1982 models sold as 1983 cars. Hundreds of millions of dollars had been squandered on the project on both sides of the Atlantic.
DeLorean, himself, was arrested in late 1982 on charges of drug trafficking--allegedly to make money to keep his auto operation alive. He was cleared of the drug charges, claiming entrapment, but then kept a fairly low profile until his death after a stroke in March, 2005 at the age of 80.
I last talked face-to-face with DeLorean in 1973, when he had just left General Motors, but spoke via phone with him around 2000, when he was on the East Coast.
"Why, I haven't talked to you in about 1,000 years," DeLorean said, sounding as confident and optimistic as when I first interviewed him in his office when he was Pontiac's boss in the 1960s. He then began describing the 200-plus mph sports car he said he was designing with the help of ultra-light aircraft producers on the West Coast.
"It can be done," he said. "I can do it."
The car was never built.