DeLorean – back to the past

If you’re a petrol head born sometime between the mid-60’s and the mid-70’s, there’s probably few cars that you were more excited about in your youth than the famous DeLorean. Thinking of it, you probably didn’t even need to be a petrol head to find the car exciting. The looks, the gullwing doors, the unpainted, stainless steel body, the story around John DeLorean himself and of course, the car’s appearance in the “Back to the future”-movies have all contributed to this being one of the most famous cars from the 80’s.

In 1981 this was really back to the future!

Somewhat surprisingly we’ve never written about the DeLorean on the blog and it definitely feels like it’s time to change that, also as I met a very nice DeLorean owner with his car not too long ago. This week’s post will therefore be on the car with almost a decade-long delivery time but that was only in production for 18 months, that at the launch was hopelessly overpriced and under-powered, and likewise the car whose creator was charged in a major drug smuggling case!

The car commonly referred to as the “DeLorean” was the only car ever built by the DMC, the DeLorean Motor Corporation, founded by John DeLorean in 1973. DeLorean had previously made a name for himself at General Motors in the muscle car era as lead engineer and vice president at Pontiac and later at Chevrolet. After many years at GM he got bored with what he perceived like a lack of innovation. He decided to leave, set up his own company and launch what he called an ethical sports car with notably more focus on safety than was the standard at the time.

The DeLorean was designed by Giugiaro, however based on an existing proposal Giugiaro had submitted to Porsche as an idea for the coming Porsche 928, but that Porsche had turned down. By 1975 the design was completed and apart from (very) minor tweaks remained unchanged until the car was finally launched in 1981. The initial plan was to use a 6-cylinder engine from Ford. That was then dropped for the four-cylinder engine from the Citroen CX (yep, really!), but in the end even DeLorean he had to realize that the power at just over 100 hp in the US due to stricter emission regulations was not enough. Finally it was decided to use the so called PRV 6-cylinder engine from notably the Renault 30 and the Volvo 760. In “US mode” the engine put out around 130 hp, better than 100 but still far less than somewhat comparable competitors.

The long development time was also caused by DeLorean realizing that his thinking around safety features wasn’t viable in the end and that some features such as a full-width knee bar in the interior had to be rethought. He therefore took in Colin Chapman from Lotus quite late in the process, who looked at the prototype and saw a need for re-working large parts of the car. When it was finally launched in 1980, the DeLorean was built on the Lotus steel chassis from the Esprit and had the engine not in the middle but in the rear, as the 911 (but unfortunately without the power of the latter). During the car’s development, the intention had been for it to be named the DMC-12, where 12 would refer to USD 12.000 as its sticker price. By the time deliveries started that price tag had more than doubled and the name was thus dropped for the more neutral DeLorean.

All cars were unpainted at delivery, so any other colour is an after-job

Around 9.000 DeLoreans were built in total in 1981-1982 in a factory in northern Ireland before being shipped to the US. The factory was financed by UK taxpayer money as a way to bring jobs to the region but didn’t last long as DeLorean filed for receivership at the end of 1982. As illustrated by the selling price, the long development time had caused costs to spiral out of control and although the car was well received for its futuristic looks, many prospective buyers were disappointed by the lack of innovation on the inside and again, the lack of power. To be fair though, had DeLorean gone on a bit longer such as to start selling cars in Europe, the power output would have been significantly higher at around 160 hp, thanks to more generous regulations, which would have been more in line with comparable cars at the time. There were also thoughts around a double-turbo version with over 250 hp, but that was never to be.

Interior was available in grey or black and wasn’t bad, but quite conventional

Back then to my newfound friend a few weeks ago who graciously showed me his DeLorean. It is indeed a spectacular car with notably the steel body panels looking really timeless and very cool, as do of course the doors. Who knows, if the first “Back to the future” had come out in 1981 rather than 1985, perhaps that would have given DeLorean enough of a boost to go on a bit longer? The car’s interior is far less innovative with a very 80’s feel to it. Here DeLorean had wanted a more futuristic thinking with digital displays and gauges, but again delays and costs forced him to adopt a more conventional look. The owner told me that driving-wise the car is much more of a cruiser than a sports car. He says he was happy to have a manual box rather than the slow automatic, but also that the PRV isn’t the sportiest of engines. He also mentioned what all DeLorean owners can probably testify to, which is that half the pleasure from driving the car comes from all the happy smiles, thumbs up and photographies from bystanders and other drivers.

Not a car for those not comfortable with being in the limelight!

Next to the lack of power DeLorean was also criticized for bad build quality, especially in the interior. This was probably true but then again I can’t really think of an 80’s car with an interior that has stood the test of time. The truth is that interiors were pretty bad over the board at the time and seen from that angle, the DeLorean at least doesn’t look worse than the rest. The owner hadn’t had any major issues but admitted that small things do break, a lot of them electrical. From that perspective it was probably a good thing that DeLorean didn’t have enough money for his more futuristic ideas… What is very good however, is that the car enjoys a very strong following and very active owner clubs in varous countries. It is believed that more than 6.000 of the 9.000 DeLoreans produced are still on the road today which is a truly impressive number, testifying both to a quality that can’t be that bad, and also a well functioning parts supply through the owners’ network.

So what about the drug dealing charges? Well, it’s kind of a strange story, but in 1982 DeLorean was arrested and charged with cocaine smuggling. He fought the case several years in courts and was finally acquitted of all charges, and it appears the whole thing had been an FBI setup, the purpose of which isn’t really clear. What is, is that following the bankruptcy of DeLorean, John tried to start a number of new businesses but was unable to find investors for any of them. Having been charged in a drug smuggling case probably didn’t help, even if he was acquitted…

Dreamcar builder, playboy, indirect filmstar – but probably not a drug smuggler

So there you are – almost. Because following the demise of DeLorean, in 1983 all remaining parts and stock of unsold cars were shipped to Ohio where they sat a few years until they were acquired by a company in Texas called… the DeLorean Motor Company. Still in existance today and present across the US, the “new” DMC built new DeLoreans out of spare parts, sell spare parts, and service and restores DeLoreans. They’ve also had plans to bring back the DeLorean as an electric car for a number of years, but whether that will ever happen is unclear at best – the original launch date was in 2013. If you’re interested in finding out more, check out http://www.delorean.com.

The new DeLorean company, the many owners’ clubs and hereby the good supply of spare parts along with an engine that was widely used and for which parts can also be found thus make the DeLorean a less problematic car to own than you may suspect. Should you be convinced, it should be noted that values of DeLoreans have gone up in the last years and around EUR 50.000 is what a good car will cost you. Looking across the Atlantic could definitely also be worth it, notably thanks to the new DeLorean Motor Company. As with all cars from this period, the manual version is to be preferred over the automatic which will make the experience even slower. The limited power means it’s not much of a sports car and the interior is nowhere near as spectacular as the stainless steel body with the gullwing doors, but few designs have stood the test of time as well, few still catch as much attention and arguably, few cars make you feel more like an 80’s filmstar!

One thought on “DeLorean – back to the past

  1. Pingback: Ford GT – more than just cubic inches! – The Thrill of Driving

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