Three decades have passed since maverick John Z DeLorean gave us his dream car. Kevin Hackett meets the people keeping the fantasy alive.
Enthusiasts keep John DeLorean's time machine ticking
Detroit, Longbridge, Dagenham, Modena, Stuttgart, Crewe, Munich. Some less glamorous than others but all these locales are world-famous for one thing: building cars. But Dunmurry in Northern Ireland? For an all-too-brief period in the early 1980s, this Belfast suburb was in the headlines for reasons other than "the Troubles". Paramilitary forces were knocked off the tabloid front pages by a car company - one that, to this day, remains among the industry's most controversial: DeLorean.
History is littered with failed start-ups and car models that have disappeared into obscurity and, rationally, DeLorean's DMC-12 should be one of them. After all, it's reckoned that no more than 9,200 were built between 1981 and 1982. But the DMC-12, usually referred to simply as the DeLorean, refuses to relinquish its vice-like grip on our collective subconscious. It's an icon of the 1980s and it is 30 years old this year. Just what is it about this underpowered failure that makes it so memorable?
The car's creator, John Z DeLorean, was a legend in the US car industry long before the DMC-12. Born into a struggling immigrant family, his parents split and DeLorean, determined not to follow the path of his father (who he viewed as a failure), went to university. He excelled in engineering and, after a short spell selling life insurance, started working for automobile makers. His intelligence, coupled with charisma in spades, resulted in rapid promotions and, by the time he left General Motors in April 1973, he was vice-president of GM's entire car and truck production. In his time, he's been credited with many advancements in car production processes and, crucially, as the inventor of the muscle car, with the original 1964 Pontiac GTO being his idea. Anything this man did would be the focus of attention in America, so a car with his name on it would surely be a winner.
Then there was a star turn for the car in the Back to the Future trilogy, where a DeLorean was pressed into service as a time machine and that, no doubt, has sealed its immortality to some extent. But even if Dr Emmett Brown had chosen a Volkswagen Beetle to hop between the decades and centuries, John Zachary DeLorean's stainless steel, gullwing-doored one-hit-wonder would still have been poured over by countless fans the world over. Who knows? If the film had come out in 1981, rather than '85, perhaps the DeLorean would have survived.
Admit it; there's something about it, isn't there? One reason for our enduring fascination with the car is that it's still utterly unique. Every single one that left the factory was unpainted; its stainless steel bodywork marking it out as a DeLorean. It was mid-engined and had gullwing doors - things normally the preserve of unreachable supercars - but it was the bare steel that truly marked it out as something special. Its rakish profile was designed by Italian maestro Giugiaro and Lotus founder Colin Chapman had extensive involvement in its chassis make-up.
On paper it all looks like a marriage made in heaven, but there were plenty of problems standing in the way of world domination for this extraordinary-looking car. The factory was staffed by inexperienced workers, many of whom had been out of work for years, so quality control was often a joke.
Also, there was no right-hand drive variant available, which automatically excluded some potentially lucrative markets, and the car was actually designed and built with one country in mind: the United States. And when the Americans stopped buying them, there were upwards of 4,000 cars languishing unsold in Ireland. The company went spiralling into financial meltdown, then DeLorean was charged with cocaine trafficking. DeLorean - the man and the company - was finished.
Like I said earlier, however, the DeLorean name refuses to go away. Actually, you may be surprised to know that the DeLorean Motor Company is doing rather well for itself. It's located just outside Houston, Texas, and has five other facilities (Florida, Washington, Illinois and California, in the USA, and one in the Netherlands to look after the European market), where the cars are restored, sold and sometimes built from scratch using the enormous stocks of original and remanufactured parts the company stores.
The company can trace its roots back to 1982, when the original DMC filed for bankruptcy. Dealers were refusing to undertake warranty work as there was a high chance they'd never see any money for their efforts. Parts supply was shambolic, too, because DeLorean was imploding under the strains of debt and owners started going elsewhere for servicing and repairs. At the time, Stephen Wynne owned an independent garage facility in southern California, specialising in English and French cars, and he recognised the Renault drivetrain used in the DeLorean, as well as many other components more commonly found in European motors. Working on DeLoreans would be a piece of cake.
Word spread like wildfire and, by the time DeLorean went bust in 1982, business for Wynne was booming. Inevitably, as the car company's assets were liquidised, various outfits and individuals got their hands on manufacturing parts and spares. It's a widely held belief that the dies used for stamping the body panels in the construction process were thrown into the sea to prevent anyone manufacturing in the future and it's said they're now used as anchors for fishing nets in the wilds of Connemara on the far west coast of Ireland.
But Wynne's determination to offer the most complete service to DeLorean owners eventually paid off. He secured the rights to the DeLorean Motor Company name, the use of the DMC logo, as well as the engineering drawings, tooling and records.
Wynne's reborn DeLorean Motor Company moved to its current facility 10 years ago, which is conveniently sited for two of Houston's airports, as well as the shipping port of Galveston, meaning entire cars can be easily transported anywhere in the world. And they sell the cars, too, either as well-preserved pre-owned examples or "new builds", which begin life as used DeLoreans but are entirely stripped and rebuilt using either original or remanufactured parts, resulting in cars that are actually better than when they were new, with improvements to interior trim, chassis componentry and power upgrades for the engines. The price for a good-as-new legend like this? Less than $60,000 (Dh220,374). Tempted?
James Espey is the vice-president of the DeLorean Motor Company - perhaps he can shed some light on why it's such an icon. "That really depends on to whom you're speaking," he says. "Many people relate to the entire John DeLorean rags-to-riches-to-rags story, others to his glory days in the '60s and early '70s at Pontiac and Chevrolet. Still others have the connection to the car from the Back to the Future films. Some place in the world, right now, one of those movies is on television and someone is seeing it for the first time and being introduced to the DeLorean car.
"We're often asked about the 'typical' DeLorean owner, and there really isn't one. We literally have owners from ages eight to 80 - men, women, professionals, tradespeople, students - you name the profession and I can probably point to a DeLorean owner in that field."
But is there something, apart from controversy and being a film star that has sealed the DeLorean's fate? "As the only production car with a stainless-steel body (Rolls-Royce acquired a DeLorean when they evaluated stainless for use on the Phantom bonnet), it's unique and easy to maintain," continues Espey. "The gullwing doors, a practical novelty, ensure that you'll always be the centre of attention wherever you park it. All that, coupled with the ease of mechanical maintenance and ready availability of new old stock and reproduction spares make it truly one of the more practical classics that you both own and enjoy."
There's a connection with this part of the world, too, as Espey explains. "Back in 1982, 50 DeLoreans were shipped to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Those cars have scattered around a bit over the years, but a surprisingly large number of them are still in the Middle East. Though identical to the US-spec DeLorean cars, these particular cars have the distinction of being the only cars officially exported by the original DeLorean Motor Company to any country other than the USA."
A rare sight on our roads, perhaps, the DeLorean still manages to tug at the heartstrings whenever one is spotted. Its star burnt out far too quickly and John DeLorean never gave up the dream of restarting his company. We can't help but root for someone who was that determined and, even though he died six years ago, aged 80, his name will be forever linked with something that still brings happiness to countless millions. Yes, the car could have been better built, more powerful and more reliable, but thanks to the new DMC, this dream can be realised for relatively little money, which is possibly the best news of all for the DMC-12's 30th birthday.