For better or for worse, it’s impossible to mention the DeLorean DMC-12 without talking about the Back to the Future trilogy. Don’t get us wrong – the films are bona-fide classics, and they made the iconic stainless steel sports car one of the most famous cars in history. But thinking of the DeLorean as just a prop from a movie is doing it a disservice — behind the DMC-12 is one of the most interesting stories in automotive history, and more than 30 years after the company’s demise, a recent development in Congress means the DeLorean could return as the unlikeliest new model of 2016.
It’s impossible to talk about the DeLorean without talking about the man behind it first. The son of Romanian immigrants, John DeLorean was born and raised in Detroit. A brilliant engineering mind with a flair for self-promotion, by 1965 he was 40 and running Pontiac, becoming the youngest division chief in GM history. A few years earlier, he had the idea of stuffing a big V8 into a compact coupe, creating the Pontiac GTO, and igniting the muscle car era along with it. By the end of the decade, his trendy wardrobe and jet-setting lifestyle made him one of the highest-profile figures to ever come out of the Motor City.
But he and GM’s famously conservative board of directors were often at odds, even though his products were bringing in unprecedented success. By the early ’70s, he was vice president of GM cars and truck production, but when it became obvious he would be passed over by the board as its next president, he resigned in 1973.
Later that year, he founded the DeLorean Motor Corporation, and within a few years, the company had become a cause célébre in the automotive world. DeLorean’s car had a stylish design penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro (designer of the Volkswagen Golf and Lotus Esprit), the financial backing of celebrities like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr., and a number of engineers who defected from Detroit to work on the project.
By the end of the decade, the car, now known as the DMC-12, became an international effort. It was engineered by Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus, and the engine was the PRV V6 jointly developed by Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo. After initially leaning towards building the car in Puerto Rico, the Northern Ireland Development Agency government offered DeLorean £100 million in incentives to build its factory in a Belfast suburb. At the time, Northern Ireland was a war zone, and it was thought that bringing jobs to the area and getting people to work together would help to ease tensions during the darkest days of the Troubles.
Production started on the DMC-12 in early 1981, but the company was already hamstrung by serious financial problems. It’s a shame, because the car was every bit as unique and groundbreaking as DeLorean said it would be. With the Lotus-designed suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, the car handled well, and the PRV V6 could take the car from zero to 60 in under nine seconds – more than respectable in the horsepower-deprived early ’80s. But where the car really stood out was its styling. With its stainless steel body and gull-wing doors, the DMC-12 was unlike anything else on the road.
However, the car looked like it would never have its day in the sun. Despite initial long waiting lists for the car, the company was bleeding money, and in 1982, the company went into receivership. Facing mounting debts and claimed threats on his life, a drug trafficker-turned FBI informant pressured DeLorean into bankrolling a cocaine smuggling operation, and on October 19, 1982 he was arrested in a massive sting operation. The arrest made international headlines, and effectively marked the end of the company. He successfully defended himself with a defense of police entrapment and was cleared of all charges in 1984, but by then, the DMC-12 was history.
In the years after the company’s failure and DeLorean’s public humiliation, the car became something of a rolling punchline. Even using the DMC-12 as Doc’s time machine in Back to the Future was initially supposed to be a joke (though DeLorean sent a thank you note to director Robert Zemeckis for choosing it). Luckily, it had the opposite effect, introducing millions of people to the car, and giving it a higher profile than it ever would’ve had otherwise. Now 30 years after the film’s release, a bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives could turn the carc into a true time traveler.
As DeLorean’s business failures recede into history, the popularity of Back to the Future, and the DMC-12’s timeless good looks and innovative design have turned it into one of the most collectible cars of the ’80s. Today, Clean cars can trade hands for well over $50,000, and thanks to the new DeLorean Motor Company (in Texas), there’s more than enough support to keep the remaining 6,500 or so cars on the road for years to come.
In some ways, the DMC-12’s saga gets even stranger after DeLorean’s arrest, and the company’s seizure by the British government. It’s remaining inventory (parts and unsold cars) were bought by Consolidated International, the company that became Big Lots. The cars were sold off, and the remaining parts were shipped from Belfast to a warehouse in Colombus, Ohio. In the late ’90s, DeLorean Motor Company bought the entire supply of DMC-12 parts, and began selling them to the growing DeLorean owners community, as well as providing restoration services, and opening several centers throughout the United States and Europe.
But the most remarkable service they offer is the New Build program. Starting at $57,500, these built-to-order cars are truly time capsule vehicles – they’re brand new DMC-12s, built from surviving parts 33 years after production ceased. Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to the program for now. Like DeLorean Motor Company, there are a small but growing number of companies in the U.S. that are meticulously recreating classic cars that left production decades ago. And while the idea of buying a brand new ’66 Mustang or early Porsche 911 is a dream for millions of gearheads, current safety and emissions legislation prevents most of these cars from being sold as anything other than kits, restored cars, or show-and-display models.
This month, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives would allow small manufacturers who build fewer than 500 cars a year to offer these models to the public, albeit with current engines and emissions systems. The current auto manufacturing laws were written specifically with major automakers, their budgets, and production capacities in mind. The new bill, if passed, could potentially create a whole new marketplace of boutique manufacturers bringing classic cars back to life.
Simply put, that means we could potentially be getting a new DeLorean, looking exactly like it came from the factory in 1982. From its massive stores of new-old stock parts, DMC has the resources to build up to 300 brand new DMC-12s over the course of several years, and still have enough inventory to support the surviving cars for decades.
It means that the American car with the French-Swedish engine, English suspension, and Irish construction could re-enter production 33 years later in Texas. The car that was so eagerly anticipated, became the center international scandal, an unlikely Hollywood icon, and eventually revered for its groundbreaking design, could come out of the past and into the 21st century. If that isn’t fitting for the strange, legendary saga of the DeLorean DMC-12, we don’t know what is.