The average driver can’t identify most common auto parts, but mention a flux capacitor, and movie buffs, auto enthusiasts and pop culture followers will immediately go “Back to the Future.”
The movie arguably breathed new life into DeLorean cars. The unmistakably stylish, stainless-steel-bodied, gull-wing-door creation of John DeLorean was as controversial as the man himself.
John Z. DeLorean began his career as an automotive engineer with Chrysler in 1953 before joining the struggling Pontiac division of General Motors in 1956. He had a gift for marketing and a crassness that went against convention.
Identifying the need for younger buyers, DeLorean pioneered the muscle car genre when he stuffed a big V8 engine into a 1964 Pontiac Tempest, creating the legendary GTO. Quickly rising through the ranks to become chief engineer, DeLorean was then named the youngest general manager of Pontiac, where he saw the division achieve the distinction of third-best-selling automaker behind Chevrolet and Ford, respectively. Decisions like his introduction of the Firebird eventually propelled DeLorean to manager of Chevrolet and, ultimately head of GM North America.
DeLorean’s arrogance matched his talent and like many before him, he decided it was time to build the car of his vision. It was to be an “ethical” car, safe, sustainable and enduring. Also like many before him, money was a constant issue and the ultimate undoing of the DeLorean Motor Co.
DeLorean assembled a top team to form his company. The body was styled by Giugiaro, founder of the notable Italian studio responsible for many Lotus and Maserati designs, as well as the original Golf for Volkswagen.
Based on a concept originally planned for Porsche, the DeLorean was to have a cutting-edge fiberglass chassis and mid-engine power plant, among its more advanced features.
Despite the millions of dollars raised through loans and investors, it was necessary to make cost-effective changes early in the process. The chassis became more conventional steel, and the engine was moved to the rear, which compromised handling. But the biggest change and the largest shortcoming was the choice of the PRV V6 engine, a joint engineering project of Peugeot, Renault and Volvo used in many of their vehicles.
The anemic engine produced a mere 130 horsepower and motivated the DeLorean DMC-12 from 0 to 60 mph in a disappointing 10 seconds, significantly slower than competing Porsche’s and Corvette’s.
The car’s 1981 introduction price of $25,000 (around $70,000 today) was also more than expected as well as more than the competition, and the price would continue to rise through its short production run. Quality issues also plagued the early models, adding to the car’s inability to live up to the hype.
The company’s controversy carried through to the factory, which was built in a conflicted region of northern Ireland, with financial backing from the British government. DeLorean, a well-accepted figure among the Hollywood elite, married to a third wife who was a model less than half his age, was treated like a rock star at the DMC factory, located in a region where unemployment was rampant and political turmoil was a way of life.
He dabbled in schemes to keep his company afloat in the face of shrinking capital. Shady dealings were not an uncommon tactic, and the final straw was an FBI sting that captured him attempting to make a deal involving 220 pounds of cocaine worth $24 million.
DeLorean was ultimately acquitted when his attorney argued successfully that he was entrapped, but unfortunately it was too late for his flailing company, and the British government seized the factory.
The Delorean DMC-12 was pushed into production in a remarkably short period of time. From inception of the DeLorean Motor Co. in October of 1975 to bankruptcy in October of 1982, 9,000 cars were manufactured, though fewer actually sold to retail customers.
One of the creditors owed money from DMC was Consolidated Stores Corp., parent of Big-Lots stores, which acquired about 100 partially completed cars from the factory in Ireland and shipped them to Ohio, where they were assembled and sold. The ultimate salvage find.
John DeLorean’s problems didn’t end with the dissolution of his company. Personal bankruptcy, numerous lawsuits, fraud and embezzlement charges ensued in the following years, and much of his personal wealth went to resolve these, including the sale of his 500-acre New Jersey estate, which was eventually acquired by Donald Trump and is now the location of the Trump National Golf Club.
This is just a small view into the DeLorean story. The saga is much more complex and convoluted, and books have been written about John Z. DeLorean, the DMC-12 car and the spectacular failure of the DeLorean Motor Co. DeLorean died in 2005 of stroke complications, and like so many shooting stars, his faded after ending his days in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey with his fourth wife. I bet you thought I was going to end this with a corny “Back to the Future” reference.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.