Back in the Sixties, John Z. Delorean was one of the greatest men working at General Motors. But, by the middle of the Eighties, that all came to a crashing end in a federal courthouse. Most of us know what happened. But, what about the car he badly wanted to put on the market? The DeLorean DMC-12 is still known by most of the public as a time machine, but its own story is a look back at one of the most famous storylines of all time in the small-manufacturer books.
John DeLorean was, in the 1960s, a big name at GM. He was part of the masterminds behind the Pontiac GTO, a car which spearheaded the muscle car era in 1964. He also oversaw development of the original Firebird and 1969 Grand Prix, another set of Pontiac icons. Later on, he became the head of GM’s North American operations, making over $600K per year. His expertise was doubted by few, as he had worked at Chrysler and Packard before hitting General Motors, and had already made a name for himself all over the industry. But, after GM’s Chevrolet Vega disaster of the 1970s, DeLorean left the company in 1973, to create his own company, the Delorean Motor Company, which would bear his name and the fruits of his downfall.
Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding DeLorean’s arrest, trial, and short incarceration, but here, we’re going to focus on just the car. The DMC-12, as it was to be called, was initially a two-seater sports car with a mid-mounted engine and Italian styling. While initially a safety vehicle (in the same vein as the ill-fated Bricklin SV-1), it became an exotic in its design phases. Design work began in 1976, and the huge factory was finished by 1978. The DeLorean ended up in production starting in 1980 in a factory in Northern Ireland, in Dunmurry. While the engine was sourced from Renault (a PRV 2.8L V6 putting out 180hp), the suspension and chassis design were done by Lotus, and the bodywork by Giugiaro, including a set of distinctive gullwing doors. Another particularly interesting aspect of the DeLorean was its use of stainless steel for the entire bodywork–all DeLoreans looked the same, with a polished stainless finish.
While the DeLorean looked great on paper, it was, unfortunately, far less than the sum of its parts. The gas struts to hold up the heavy doors failed, trapping occupants inside (this wasn’t helped by the faulty electrical system). While the stainless steel body did not rust, it was suspectible to tarnish, and any damage required expensive specialist attention to fix. Worse, the conventional steel undercarriage of the car was prone to rot, meaning that a DeLorean could look relatively decent on the surface but be rotted out underneath, requiring yet more expensive repairs. The price ballooned over the development cycle, hurting sales. But, the most famous problem it had was that despite its exotic styling, price tag, and technology, its performance was anything but.
DeLorean challenged the Porsche 911 as his benchmark, and by all accounts, he failed miserably. While the DeLorean wasn’t that heavy and had the credentials for its suspension design, its engine and transmission were simply inadequate. The wheezy 2.8L “Douvrin” PRV V6 was a joke, producing all of 130bhp, and was barely capable of moving the car around. In fact, even for its day, the DeLorean was a joke. While the manufacturer 0-60 claim was 8.5 seconds, Road and Track tested one and recorded 10.5 seconds, a huge difference (likely due to USA emissions standards at the time). The top speed was recorded as only about 109mph, far less than the 911 of the same period.
While most of the major quality issues were solved by 1982, the end was already nigh. Production problems, worker strikes, and high unemployment in Northern Ireland all contributed to the company’s collapse. The final straw, though, was DeLorean’s arrest for cocaine trafficking in the same year. Despite winning the case, the car was already dead, with less than 9,000 produced. Of course, three years later, the DeLorean would become a superstar in the Back to the Future series of movies, but the car itself was a combination of issues, which brought down an automotive legend. That said, the car lives on, as new models can be ordered from a factory in Texas, and the car’s collector value as an oddball has proliferated over the years, to the point where good examples can fetch $30,000 occasionally. The Delorean was never a particularly great car at all, but its impact and its story make it famous.