Great Scott! Tracking the iconic DeLorean

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The DeLorean DMC-12 is a car that is recognised around the globe, due almost entirely to its appearance in the much-loved Back to the Future franchise, as the car which Doc Brown uses as the base for his time machine. By the time the DeLorean had made its famous appearance in Back to the Future, however, its run had already come to an end. To find out why, you have to go back a little further in time.

John Z. DeLorean, son of a Ford Motor Company employee, was born in Detroit in 1925. Motoring must have been in his blood – a master’s in engineering led him to work in General Motor’s Pontiac division, of which he became chief engineer in 1961, and was behind the creation of the Pontiac GTO. Despite several promotions within GM, DeLorean later wrote of problems he had with the company – both ethical and business issues – and resigned in 1973 to pursue the creation of his dream car. As a result, he established the John Z. DeLorean Corporation in 1974, and the DeLorean Motor Company the following year.

The first prototype of the DMC-12 – so named because its original price was meant to be $12,000 – appeared in 1976, but production didn’t actually begin until 1981, as early design changes meant the car needed to be almost completely re-engineered. Having considered various factory locations such as Puerto Rico and the Republic of Ireland, the company choose Northern Ireland as the most cost-efficient location, with construction work beginning in 1978. The first model rolled off the line on January 21th 1981 and the company would go on to produce less than 9,000 vehicles.

A number of factors conspired against DeLorean’s success, however. For one thing, they had moved to Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. IRA protesters were at the 1981 opening ceremonies, and Molotov cocktails were thrown over the fence, burning down the office that year, and the factory had to be closed a number of times for safety reasons. Add to that the plummeting exchange rate between the dollar and the pound, and the biggest slump the automotive industry had faced since the 1980s, and the company was quickly in trouble. Despite initially huge orders and a waiting list, cash flow continued to be a problem, as did the high price, poor reviews and issues over quality. DeLorean turned to alternative sources of income to keep afloat, and wound up in the middle of a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sting in October 1982. The company went bankrupt and, although DeLorean was later acquitted, it was too late. Rumours say that the vehicle dies were dumped in Galway Bay to prevent anyone else from building the car, while others still say that they were used as net anchors at a fish farm in Connemara.

Specs

An unusual-looking car, the DMC-12 featured several unusual features for the time, including gull wing doors, a rear mounted engine (it was originally meant to be mid-engined) and unpainted stainless steel body panels – the original plan was that the panels could simply be swapped out for new ones, rather than be repaired. The 2.85L V6 engine was designed and built by Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV), a relation to the 2.7L V6 found in the Renault 30. The DMC-12 also featured a four-wheel independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, 14-inch cast alloy wheels and power-assisted brake discs. According to the company it could go from 0-100km/h in around 8.8 seconds (manual) and 10.5 seconds (automatic). Standard features included the gull wing doors, leather seats, air condition, an AM/FM cassette stereo, power windows, locks and mirrors, tinted windows and an electric rear window defogger, which seems more than what some basic cars come with today.

The overall design of the car never changed dramatically during its short-lived production run – DeLorean made changes to the car mid-production rather than at the end of each model year. Intended primarily for the US market, all production models were left hand drive. However, the company had investigated the possibility of post-production right hand driver conversions, 16 of which were produced, and some are still around today.

Other interesting features included a design suitable for taller people (DeLorean himself was 6ft 4in), with a pull strap added to make closing the doors a simpler task for those with shorter legs and arms. DeLorean also added a foot rest in the form of an unusable pedal, which aimed to help prevent driver fatigue.

Special Edition

Several special editions of the DMC-12 have been produced over the years, including 100 24K gold-plated vehicles for a DeLorean/American Express promotion in 1980 and, most famously, the editions used during the filming of the Back to the Future trilogy.

The original repository for the Doc Brown’s flux capacitor was a refrigerator which would be then taken to an atomic bomb test site, though this was scrapped because director Robert Zemeckis didn’t want children emulating the film and locking themselves into fridges. Instead, the DMC-12 was chosen because of its outlandish looks. In the very first film, parts from three different 1981 models were used to create an even more unique car, with five used over the span of the three films, as well as one that was built for interior shorts. A seventh was used for some exterior shots, but was simply a full-sized fibreglass model. Only three still exist – one was destroyed, two were abandoned while the fibreglass version was scrapped. Though having gained a reputation for being somewhat unreliable and expensive to run, the car (and the film series) eventually proved to be a big hit, but in a way DeLorean himself could probably have never imagined.

DeLorean’s DMC-12: the stats
Production run – 8,583
Model years – 1981-1983
Assembled – Dunmurry, Northern Ireland and Houston, Texas, USA
Engine: 2.85L V6
Transmission: 5 speed manual/3 speed automatic

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