x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bringing the DeLorean back to the future

Jay Leno is pleased that a fallen favourite from the 1980s is being rebuilt under the watchful eyes of a Texan entrepreneur.

When the movie Back to the Future came out, there was a whole generation of guys (who are now in their forties) for whom the DeLorean became iconic. If you go to your high school reunion in a DeLorean, especially if you went to high school in the 1980s, you are the cool guy - particularly when the car's doors open. It's not just middle-aged dads who get a kick from the car. I hear that kids are even into it now because the film still gets aired regularly. DeLorean goes much further back than the 1980s. In the Sixties, John DeLorean was the brain behind the Pontiac GTO and so many other performance cars at General Motors. I was a teenager when he first made his mark at GM. He was a brilliant engineer, a performance-minded guy and a cool guy. When everyone else had white, button-down shirts, he wore striped shirts. He was hip. And he was one of my heroes.

He is best known, though, because he went on to develop the DeLorean, one of the most controversial cars of all time, which was built in Belfast. But after John DeLorean beat his drugs trial (I don't know how you get off when you get caught with bags of the stuff) and escaped a warrant for his arrest in the UK, I lost interest in him and the gullwing car that carried his name. It was not the car's fault it got a bad rap. The car got tarnished when he was caught with that cocaine and there were reported deals with the British government and talk of swindle. It was a real mess.

Personally the whole thing was a huge shame. He was a hero of mine and I had such faith in him, and to say he broke my heart is probably too literal, but it was physically upsetting for me. The DeLorean needs no introduction. Not now and not even when it first went on sale. I remember picking up a copy of Road and Track magazine and the cover said "IT'S HERE" - I was very excited about it. The hype for the DeLorean was huge, but the initial reviews of the car were not glowing. We all knew there would be teething problems but everyone still thought that's OK.

In particular, magazines like Road and Track said it was underpowered. It had 135hp, which seems nothing now but the smog-strangled Corvette of the late 1970s had only 165 or so. A DeLorean weighs 2,750lb, so that's pretty light. That hype meant that, in 1981, it was going for a premium, the kind of money you'd get a Ferrari or Porsche 911 for. But it is no sport car, more of a grand tourer. It has gullwing doors, a bit like that famous Mercedes 300SL of the 1950s. And gullwing doors seemed to be the future. People go wooooo! Even the new Mercedes SLS AMG seems like the Jetsons to people. It does look cool going down the road.

The DeLorean was a revolutionary car for its time. It is stainless steel, which of course you clean with a Scotch pad (oven cleaner) or some such thing. It's a good-looking car. While the body is stainless steel, the chassis is not. It is regular steel coated with stainless steel, but unfortunately the coating cracks, allowing corrosion. Some people thought it was a kit car but it was not, it was made in a proper factory in Belfast. To think they built a factory from scratch and within two years you had cars coming out. That's amazing. It's just some of the fit and finish issues made people wonder. There is nothing so wrong with this car that a few minor fixes would not have taken care of.

Never mind what kind of car you have, there is always someone who is dedicated to it. So it is good that a British guy, Stephen Wynne, from Liverpool, just across the Irish Sea from Belfast, has bought the DeLorean name [in 2007] and is rebuilding cars with all the inventory that was left over when they stopped production in 1982-83. Because DeLorean was hopeful that the car would succeed, way more parts than they ended up using got made. Like enough for 500 or so cars. So there are tons and tons of spares around to fix up old cars.

The chassis is one thing that Stephen Wynne and his team are able to fix up at their place in Houston, Texas. They are not making complete new cars but are able to replace up to about 80 per cent of worn or damaged parts like fenders, body panels from Belfast or with components that have been designed as an improvement, like wiring. Electrics were an issue. I remember Johnny Carson, the talk show host, bought one but the battery died when he was out on the LA Freeway. It was about 100°F and he was trapped; he had to get the police to come free him. That did not help the car, Johnny being one of the most famous people in America going on TV and saying he got trapped.

The car is rear engined. It's a Renault V6, 2.8L. It has a three- speed automatic but there was a five-speed manual. I would have to get the five-speed. It would change the whole personality of the car. Stephen does a supercharger upgrade that gives just under 200hp, which is what I would go for. The one I am testing, which belongs to an owner near me in LA, is stock, so that means 135hp. It's a nice-looking car, especially for the period. It looks better in reality than pictures. And it is bigger than it looks, about six feet wide, so that's a wide car.

Inside, there is lots of legroom. John DeLorean was six-foot-four, so it had to fit him. Visibility is quite good. The dashboard is nicely laid out and it does not look too dated. Everything is nicely laid out. It is quite comfortable and also has air con. There's even a strap to pull the door down. A big thing at the time is that windows only went down so much, but then the Mclaren F1 and the Lamborghini came along and their windows do not go down much either. So it became a moot point. The window opens just enough to get a single hamburger through there, so that's OK. On the freeway you just cruise. With the window open there is not much buffeting

You can tell its age when you are driving because there is an 85mph speedometer. When Jimmy Carter was the US president, he passed a law saying that speedometers could not read more than 85, thinking if you cannot read more than 85 no one will do more than 85. You can change that and put in a 140mph speedo in. I would say power is adequate. It is certainly not high-performance. When you put your foot in it will go. Once you are rolling acceleration is not bad. But it needs a throatier exhaust. It rides nicely, no rattles or bangs. There is not a lot of play in the steering. But a three-speed automatic box seems like something from the 1950s. It is not the greatest.

One thing that is weird is the 68/32 weight distribution, so it gets a little tail happy. But its not a car you are going to slide around corners with. You don't want to be hanging your rear end out - not in the car and not in life either. You can drive it swiftly without any problem. It's fun to drive. You cannot polish the bodywork. But neither does it rust or dull. It can be tricky to fix if you get hit. So my advice is don't get hit. The trouble is, going down the road everyone looks at it.

The whole DeLorean thing is a fascinating chapter in car history. Apparently, almost 10,000 were made, mostly left-hand drive, but there have been some right-hand drives, too. The good news is I think the DeLorean will be around for while. They are reasonable and parts supply is good. And in this price range of US$50,000 (Dh183,652) you are not going to find many cars as unusual as this. I have even seen DeLoreans for $20,000 (Dh73,461). For that kind of money it is unique, different and everyone has a reaction to it. So the car has not gained much in value so far but I think in the next few years you will start to see it get a little nutty, especially if they are remanufacturing parts that previously let it down.

It is amazing how much my perception of the vehicle was tainted by John DeLorean. The company did not fall apart because it was a bad car; it fell apart because of bad management. A lot of people put their heart and soul into this car in Northern Ireland. A lot of people got hurt. The nice thing is Stephen Wynne and his guys are giving this car another chance. They are literally making them as good as new again. They go through the whole motor so you get a new motor and a new car, really, that's impressive. This is a brand new car you can use every day. motoring@thenational.ae