The amazing true story of the DeLorean

The story of the DeLorean DMC-12 is as fantastical as the Back to the Future films that made it a cult classic. We head to Los Angeles to hear about an unlikely renaissance

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, June 2014. With research by James Bartlett)

At the Endless Summer Classic Car show on Los Angeles’s Hermosa Beach, there’s little doubt what the stars of the show are. Four DeLorean DMC-12s, their gull-wing doors up, are lined up in the car park, and the smartphone cameras are out in force – it’s as if Brad and Angelina have turned up. “Dude, where’s your flux capacitor!” shouts a passer-by.

“I always get that one,” says Ron Ferguson, the president of the DeLorean Owners Association and the Southern California DeLorean Club, and one of the men at the centre of California’s vibrant and very passionate DeLorean scene. “They also ask me where Doc Brown and Marty McFly are, where I get my plutonium from, and what happens if I go 88 miles per hour.”

Ron, an engineer himself, has answers to all of these questions, as he has to just about anything you could ask about DeLorean cars (and yes, he does have a flux capacitor). There are around 6,500 DeLoreans in the world today, and of the nearly 1,000 in California, Ron’s DMC-12 is one of the most pimped. He has a full Back to the Future time machine set-up, with a time travel display, the flux capacitor in the boot, and a registration plate that reads “TIME MCH”. Ron’s even got a hoverboard, though it only makes sounds – he laments that a recent news story about a startup that had invented a working version turned out to be a hoax.

“One time,” he says, “I got pulled over by a policeman on a motorbike. He strolled over very slowly, took two very slow laps around the car, inspecting it carefully. I had my documents ready and was wondering what was wrong. All he said was ‘Nice car’, and then he walked off.” Most days he drives his DeLorean, though, there’s a near-endless stream of people pointing, taking photos and high-fiving. “It can be quite hard getting gas – it often takes 20 minutes to leave.”

The reason DeLoreans are still so much part of the popular imagination has a lot to do with the Back to the Future film trilogy, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year – 2015 is also the year in the future that Doc Brown and Marty McFly travelled to. “The DeLorean is more popular than ever,” says Ron. “It’s partly because of the Back to the Future factor, which still has this hold on people, but it’s also because the true story of the DeLorean is something even Hollywood couldn’t have written.”

It all began in Detroit with John Z DeLorean, the son of a Romanian immigrant born in 1925, who worked his way up the ladder at Chrysler and then General Motors. DeLorean morphed into a tall, tanned jet-setter, who sported sideburns and open-buttoned shirts, and had a succession of  model  wives and a talent for self-promotion. He had been the youngest division head at General Motors, and was credited with the success of the Pontiac GTO, the world’s first muscle car, in 1964. He was prolific, immensely successful, and not afraid to tell the world about it: interviewed in 1996 he said, “I was a pretty talented engineer, and still am. Today I don’t think there’s a car running anywhere in the world that doesn’t have something that I created on it.”

But just as he seemed destined to become president of General Motors, he left (some say he was fired) in 1973, with the dream of a sports car for the masses that would see his DeLorean Motor Company usurp the General Motor Company. In a typical move, his DMC logo was cheekily similar to the GMC logo of his old employers.

At first, DeLorean had little more than a sketch on an envelope, but he moved fast. He had a prototype by 1976, which he then handed over to Lotus engineer Colin Chapman and legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who made the DMC-12 strikingly similar to his design for the Lotus Esprit. The plan for the DMC-12 was to create a rust-proof, stainless steel, eco-friendly “ethical sports car” that would be extremely safe and would sell for a reasonable £12,000. It was as revolutionary an idea as a car design gets.

But DeLorean needed to get it built, quickly and as cheaply as possible. Ever the opportunist, he had been toying with Puerto Rico but eventually decided to establish his factory in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, which in the late 1970s had been ravaged by a decade of sectarian violence and was an investment-free zone. The British government put up £53 million of taxpayers’ money for DeLorean to build a high-tech factory in the desperate Belfast suburb of Dunmurry, smack between Catholic and Protestant communities, creating up to 2,000 jobs.

Construction began on the factory in late 1978, with car production supposed to start the next year, though engineering problems meant the first DeLorean didn’t roll out until 1981. Even with delays, it was a mad rush to production. The first 379 cars to be shipped to Long Beach, California – some for celebrity investors such as Sammy Davis Jr and Johnny Carson – simply weren’t up to scratch, even as prices were more than double what they were supposed to be and adverts billed the car as “the most awaited automobile in history”.

“Those first cars, they were dogs,” factory worker Dave Winnington told 2004 BBC documentary Car Crash: The DeLorean Story. “A lot of people around the company were secretly hoping the boat would sink.”

For a car that was meant to take 50 hours on the production line, mechanics and engineers in America spent up to 500 hours retro-fitting the flawed vehicles. But while slowly improving cars continued to be shipped to the States, DeLorean kept getting hit with setbacks: first he was accused of misusing taxpayers’ money by his office manager in 1981, something of which he was cleared. But, more importantly, as the company was shedding money, sales in the States took a nosedive due to an unusually harsh winter.
With the UK’s new Thatcher government refusing to prop up the ailing company, DMC was in receivership by early 1982, with an increasingly desperate DeLorean flying round the world begging for funding. The nail in the coffin came at the end of that year, when DeLorean was charged with drug trafficking, caught on video referring to a suitcase of cocaine as “good as gold” in a classic FBI sting. Though he was later cleared in a high-profile trial, the dream was over.

No cars were made after 1982 – having promised to churn out 30,000 cars a year, the final tally stood at around 9,000, even if thousands of parts had been shipped to the US in anticipation of the influx. DeLorean, who died in 2005, later became a born-again Christian, patented a monorail system that was never built and filed for bankruptcy in 1999, selling his 434-acre New Jersey estate to Donald Trump.

A first sign that the DeLorean car wouldn’t slip into the annals as just another failed idea came during the production of Back to the Future. The time machine was originally going to be a laser device, and then a refrigerator, an idea director Robert Zemeckis scrapped because he didn’t want children to climb into fridges and get trapped. The DeLorean was chosen because they wanted something that looked like an “alien spaceship”, but also – with an ironic nod to the DeLorean’s patchy production – “didn’t look too perfect”. The idea was that Doc Brown had thrown the car together with parts found in a hardware and electronics store.

Just as art imitates life, so life imitates art. If Back to the Future became the catalyst for the DeLorean’s cult status, it’s second coming has been the result of real-life Doc Browns. The prime among them is Stephen Wynne, a Texas-based Liverpudlian who bought the company in 1995, acquiring the trademark to the iconic DMC logo and all the remaining inventory parts, bringing them to a warehouse in Humble, Texas, on 80 trucks at a cost of US$250,000.

At the California branch of DMC in Huntington Beach, which is run by Wynne’s son Cameron, he stands surrounded by three or four DeLoreans in various stages of repair, and huge piles of spare parts.

“It was always my dream to do something with this car,” says Wynne, who owned a DeLorean long before he bought the company. “I’d always thought that John DeLorean was a visionary who wanted to break away from the mainstream, and I dreamed of improving on his car. But I didn’t want to be seen as a crank, so I waited until people started asking me.”

People did start asking, and since 2008, Wynne has been slowly churning out around a dozen new generation DeLoreans a year, using old parts to assemble completely new vehicles at a cost of around US$57,000 (NOK337,655). Wynne is  passionate about all things DeLorean – he has
a mini-museum and a Back to the Future pinball machine back in the Texas warehouse, and doesn’t miss a beat when asked how many parts it takes to build a DeLorean from scratch: 2,650.

But the plan is to do something altogether more ambitious: he not only wants to up annual production to 50 a year, but is working on a prototype for a new electric DeLorean, which he hopes will be ready for the anniversary year next year. “It really is the way to bring the DeLorean back to the future – it will look the same, but it will have tomorrow’s technology.”

The new electric DeLorean will cost up to US$100,000, with a host of luxury upgrades, like the ’80s tape deck being replaced with a state-of-the-art entertainment system. “We have an advantage because the brand is so strong – we think it can be as big as Minis, Volkswagens or even Harley Davidson bikes. Part of it is just the wow factor. I’ve been at car shows and seen bored kids see a DeLorean – their eyes just light up.”

There are 200 or so people on the waiting list for the new electric DeLorean, including Ron Ferguson, who has driven a prototype. “It felt great, very responsive and smooth,” he says. Having had his own DeLorean since 2000 (he originally bought it for his father, who then insisted they share the vehicle), Ron should know. He knows that DeLoreans have stiff steering, a wide turning circle and underpowered engines (most modern DeLoreans feature powered-up engines); he knows that they perform better at speed, because he’s had his up to 110mph (177kph) on controlled roads; that you can fry an egg on the stainless steel shell; and that the famous gull-wing doors only require 11 inches (28cm) of clearance.

For all their fancy design and quirks, DeLoreans were built to last. “I know of DeLoreans that have more than 500,000 miles on the clock,” says Ron. “Of the 9,000 or so that were made, 6,500 are on the road today – that’s almost unheard-of for a 33-year-old car.”

A big part of that, though, is the reaction. As Ron knows from a thousand high-fives and comments about flux capacitors, it’s a car people respond to. “It’s the movie, it’s the story, it’s everything,” he says. “But most of all… just look at it.” The DeLorean seems to be going nowhere except into the future.

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