The iconic DeLorean from Back to the Future rides again
The strange history – and return – of the DMC Time Machine. Great Scott, indeed!
It takes a special mix of ingredients to make a car an icon. Among other things, the design has to be revolutionary, the look has to be spectacular, and it has to have that certain something that makes it charisma on four wheels.
An amazing history helps too, yet for the DeLorean DMC-12, the fact that it became world famous thanks to the Back
to the Future movies was almost the least interesting part of its story. Some people were even amazed to learn it was a real car, not something magicked up in a Hollywood prop studio.
By the time Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) revealed his time machine to Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), the DeLorean Motor Company was bankrupt, the factory doors were closed, and its visionary leader was facing jail time.
Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that the original run of 9,000 or so cars were built in Northern Ireland, then classified as a war zone due to The Troubles, a long-time conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions.
Gunning for the big time
A huge government subsidy – some say more than £50M (equivalent to £180M today) – brought the exciting project to Belfast in 1981. It was a city badly in need of good news, and it was personified in the charismatic John Z. DeLorean, a Romanian-American who already had a place in auto history thanks to his work on the Pontiac GTO and Firebird muscle cars.
The son of a Ford factory worker who put himself through school while supporting his mother, he was a hotshot set to be offered the presidency of GM when he quit: He had bigger plans.
In a burst of champagne bubbles, he unveiled his silver stainless steel DeLorean DMC-12 ($12,000 was the originally planned price), and the world wowed. It had distinctive gull-wing doors that opened upwards, a rear 2.8-liter V-6 engine, and looked unlike anything else – almost something from the future, in fact.
Celebrities were soon behind the wheel, chat show legend Johnny Carson was an investor, and DeLorean’s jetsetting lifestyle seemed to promise an avalanche of orders. It seemed to be a win-win for everyone.
But it wasn’t.
The orders came in slower than expected, design issues were ignored, costs kept rising, there was an international oil crisis (which meant the cars were mandated to only go to 85mph), and despite the harmony between the workers, there were Troubles-related riots outside the factory.
The final straw came when DeLorean was arrested and charged with attempting to traffic cocaine, a desperate last resort to save his company. The charges were later dismissed, but the dream was over and
DeLorean seemed destined to drive into history as an Icarus-style lesson.
But the story wasn’t over yet. Originally, designer Bob Gale planned to use an old refrigerator as the time machine in Back to the Future, but as soon as he saw the look of the DeLorean, he was hooked. They had to adjust the speedometer to go to 88mph, add some lights and the Flux Capacitor, and soon enough a movie legend was born.
Nearly all the DeLoreans were built as left-hand drives, and thanks to the ideal climate (and the movies), the vast majority of them ended up in California, which is also home to the DeLorean Owners Association – and thrillingly, you occasionally see one on the streets.
It was however a Texas connection that bought DeLorean back to life in 1997.
Unlike other rare cars, there was a factory-full of parts left behind when DeLorean went under, and Liverpudlianborn Stephen Wynne, a dedicated fan and US resident since the 1980s, saw an opportunity.
He and a partner bought the name, the remaining engines, parts and blueprints and, starting in Humble, Texas, licensed several specialist garages across the USA and in the Netherlands. Demand for repairs was constant, and they began making a few “re-manufactured” cars, too.
An icon reborn
In 2015 the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act finally made smallscale replica production of cars like the DeLorean financially viable, and the limit was set at 325 cars per year. DMC will initially manufacture fewer than that but hope to upscale production quickly – and the order books are already full.
The new DeLorean will still be stainless steel, but it will also have a 300-plus-horsepower engine, new brakes and suspension, larger wheels, satellite and HD radio, and a state-of-the-art sound system, though the sticker price of $100,000 plus still doesn’t include a capacity to bend space and time.
If you can’t wait there are always original DeLoreans to buy on eBay, and there is (allegedly) one 24K goldplated DeLorean that’s for sale by a private owner.
It was one of three that were sold as part of an American Express promotion; you can see the others at the Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A. (which is also home to the restored time machine used in the movie), and at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.
You can buy an imitation Flux Capacitor, and Wynne says that while as many as seven out of 10 owners bought their first car because of the movies, only a few dozen have “pimped out” their ride to look like it: most simply love it the way it is.
Other eye-catching conversions have included a limousine, a Hummer, a Monster Truck, a hovercraft, a golf cart and a taxi, and over the years the DeLorean has inspired music, art exhibitions and documentaries.
Proud celebrity owner Seth MacFarlane often features the car in his shows Family Guy and American Dad, and there was a Back
to the Future ride at Universal Studios, but it was destroyed by a fire in 2008.
The DeLorean has never been far from the movies, and after a supporting role in this year’s Ready Player One, hopefully
Driven will be hitting the big screen too. It stars Jason Sudeikis as one of the FBI agents who worked the sting to bring down John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace).
For fans though, it’s just another signpost on the journey.
They’re used to getting the best parking spots outside restaurants (“Valets fight for the keys,” says Wynne), before admitting that there are some disadvantages to being an owner:
“People are always coming up to talk, to take photos, and to touch the car to see if it’s real. So you’re always wiping fingerprints off!”