Written by Matthew Hocker
When Back to the Future hit theaters in 1985 Michael J. Fox was catapulted to superstardom. However, the sleek and stylish DeLorean DMC-12 time machine arguably stole the show. Although immortalized in film, the story behind John DeLorean and the car itself carries with it all the makings of a summer blockbuster: action and adventure, drama and intrigue, triumph and failure. Arguably, it is a tale so fantastical and complex that not even Hollywood could do it proper justice.
Long before the DMC-12, John DeLorean developed a successful career with major American automobile manufacturers, the first of which was Chrysler. In less than a year, he left Chrysler’s engineering department for Packard, eventually becoming head of research and development. In 1956, he began working for the Pontiac Division’s advanced engineering department, later proving a crucial player in conceiving the Pontiac GTO, Tempest and Firebird. An innovator and cunning salesman, DeLorean rose through the ranks before becoming GM’s vice president in 1972.
Despite his success DeLorean resigned in 1973, disillusioned with the direction the company had taken. In his eyes, annual model changes lacked technical innovation and were primarily about selling minor cosmetic enhancements. In his own words, “…each year all we were offering to the customer was a supper warmed over.” Ultimately, DeLorean sought to address these issues by independently marketing and manufacturing what he termed an “ethical sports car.”
After forming the John Z. DeLorean Corporation in 1974, he sought out investors, including TV talk show host Johnny Carson. Dealerships were considered key shareholders, with interested parties required to buy at least 5,000 shares and fifty to one hundred fifty cars during the first two years of production. By 1981, more than three hundred fifty dealerships agreed to stand behind his dream, including Lennertz Oldsmobile of Merriville, Indiana (formerly run by our own Steve Moskowitz!).
With an original target release of 1979, the first production model rolled off the assembly line in December 1980. Although delayed, public anticipation for Delorean’s unique sports car was still high. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the DMC-12’s stainless steel body was marketed as stylish, built to last and resistant to corrosion. Outstretched gullwing doors stood out in any parking lot, and the Italian glove leather interior was the epitome of luxury. For those with deeper pockets, the 1980 American Express Christmas catalog offered an $85,000 model sporting a 24 karat gold plated body. Originally limited to one hundred custom ordered units only two gold plated DMC-12’s were ever sold.
Unfortunately, from the outset a series of technical failures overshadowed the hype behind the DMC-12, thereby creating a wave of negative press. Electrical system issues were commonly reported with early models, the most famous of which being Johnny Carson’s alternator failing soon after receiving his car. On top of four factory recalls, a number of automotive journalists felt the V6 Renault engine was slower than advertised. In July 1981, Car and Driver reported “…[seeing] a flat-out 117 mph (indicated)…refuting the factory’s early prediction of a 130 mph top speed.”
Exceptionally high pricing during the early 1980s recession also contributed to less than stellar sales. While originally projected to cost between $10,000 and $15,000 in the late seventies, 1981 models debuted at $26,175 and jumped to $29,825 in 1982. For sports car enthusiasts, there were much cheaper alternatives, such as the $9,794 ’82 V-8 Firebird S/E.
A series of events in 1982 would lay the final nail in the coffin for DeLorean’s factory, the first being the British government’s decision in February to place the company under receivership. By October, with feelings their investment hadn’t paid off, the government announced plans to permanently close the factory. Almost simultaneously, DeLorean was arrested for attempting to buy and sell cocaine in a desperate final attempt to save his company. Although found innocent and eventually acquitted of criminal fraud charges, DeLorean’s reputation was tainted beyond repair. Never again would the self-proclaimed “egomaniac” make another car.