‘Back to the Future’: Switching to a DeLorean Time Machine Was a Problem Behind the Scenes

No other prop in Back to the Future holds as much significance as the DeLorean. It’s the actual time machine! A real life vehicle with a storied history, the car is synonymous with the movie and conjures up images of Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly blazing down the street with fiery wheels. It also reminds fans of Doc shouting, “Great Scott!” and lightning bolts igniting the next journey.

But the DeLorean was not always part of the film, and when writers brought it into the story, it posed its own set of challenges for the production team.

'Back to the Future' DeLorean DMC-12
‘Back to the Future’ DeLorean DMC-12 at special anniversary screening, 2015 in New York City | Theo Wargo/Getty Images

The ‘Back to the Future’ DeLorean ‘wasn’t a good car’

Originally, Back to the Future writers had a standalone time machine sitting in a pickup truck driven by Marty and Doc. A nuclear power surge would have powered it into another time period, but Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale came up with another imaginative idea: the DeLorean DMC-12.

According to the book, We Don’t Need Road: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy by Caseen Gaines, they abandoned their truck-in-the-desert scenario in favor of this unique car. As they hashed out their revised script, John DeLorean was arrested and stood trial for cocaine trafficking. He was later acquitted.

Meanwhile, the car did not have a good reputation, and the art and effects team had to rig it. Made of stainless steel, the car looked interesting but did not perform well. Per Gaines, producer Neil Canton said, “It was a cool-looking car, but it really wasn’t a good car. There’s a reason why it never really became a successful seller.”

The DeLorean could not go up to 88 mph

After the design team outfitted the DeLorean DMC-12 with its gadgets, flux capacitor, and plutonium-drinking components, it was ready for the road. Well, kind of. It’s well known that Marty had to put the pedal to the medal to reach 88 miles per hour in order to fly through time. Per Gaines, Zemeckis and Gale only chose that number so the audience would remember it.

But behind the scenes, the car could not go that fast because of legislation. Gaines noted that then-president Jimmy Carter enacted a law in 1979 that required cars to have speedometers capped out at 85 mph. That affected DeLoreans’ construction, including the model used in BTTF. Though the law was later overturned, the car topped out.

To fix this issue for the movie, production designers swapped out the original speedometer with a different one, and “added a digital display for additional good measure.” That adjustment paid off and 88 is forever etched in fans’ minds.


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Christopher Lloyd described the DeLorean as uncomfortable

Christopher Lloyd played the unforgettable Dr. Emmett Brown, the clock-loving time machine’s inventor. He loved the idea of incorporating the DeLorean into the story and thought it was the perfect fit for Doc’s goal. He found it to be futuristic, but a tight squeeze.

“It was tight and uncomfortable,” he recalled. “Usually we had to shoot with the windows closed. One time we were in there with Einstein, Doc’s dog. He did not smell too good. We got pretty close and it got pretty stagnant in there.”

It was so cramped that the back of the car had to be removed to film scenes through the windshield. As for the DeLorean’s current whereabouts, it’s in this current time period, housed at the Petersen Museum in Hollywood.