Perhaps the greatest scandal in automotive history.
A car that promised so much and looked so good, but ended in absolute chaos that would rock the car industry to its core. Spawned from a great idea, what resulted was both the creation and destruction of the car industry in Northern Ireland, and the near imprisonment of the company’s founder John DeLorean.
John Zachary DeLorean (1925 – 2005) was a very talented car designer at the General Motors Corporation, bringing us such classics as the Pontiac GTO and the Chevy Vega. Unsatisfied with his maverick way of business, especially when he chose to make a little money on the side through some dubious means, he was eventually let go from GMC in 1973; despite being the Vice-President.
The story could’ve ended there, with DeLorean quietly going off to another car company and continuing his work there. But the man was determined not to be pinned down, and thus he chose instead to create what would be his magnum opus.
The idea was simple, to create an ethical, utopian sports car that was efficient, smooth, cutting edge, and wouldn’t be built with the planned obsolescence policy that had been adopted by the increasingly decadent Detroit Big Three; Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. DeLorean wanted to build a car that would last forever and be available to the public at large; not just the higher echelons of society like contemporary Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s. With that, he formed the DeLorean Motor Company; affectionately dubbed DMC.
Originally, DeLorean planned to build a factory in Puerto Rico, but was eventually persuaded to settle instead in the frigid industrial suburbs of Belfast, Northern Ireland. DeLorean was offered £100 million by the Northern Ireland Development Agency in order to help solve the deprived region’s unemployment woes. The loss of much of its shipbuilding industry, combined with increasing tensions and violent confrontations between the ruling British government and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had led to an economic stagnation that pushed the entire country to the brink.
To sweeten the deal, the British government also signed a contract in which the DMC company would be state funded at a rate that for every £100 paid into the company by the taxpayer, DeLorean only had to repay £1. In 16 months, a 660,000 ft² factory had been built in the Dunmurry suburb of Belfast; sporting some of the most advanced car assembly equipment of the time.
Meanwhile, DeLorean began to design the company’s first (and what would turn out to be only) product; the DMC-12. Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the car was meant to look like a machine that was not of this world, or had accidentally be sent back in time by some fuddy duddy in the future (I’ll get round to that later).
With Gullwing doors, a stainless steel body, and top of the range safety features including airbags and a crash-resistant plastic understructure, the car was to be the pinnacle of modern roadgoing technology.
However, beneath its futuristic body, the car is very primitive. DeLorean had signed a deal with Lotus to help him develop the machine, but this would ultimately result in it being less a unique model and more a Lotus Esprit with a different body. The promised rigidity of the car during crashes using ERM (Elastic Reservoir Moulding) was replaced by a conventional chassis and resin; even airbags weren’t included in the final model.
In a panic to get the cars into production in 2 years rather than the recommended 5, hastily put together durability tests were carried out by driving the cars round and round a racetrack constantly until bits fell off or it broke down.
The build quality was also shambolic to say the least.
The iconic Gullwing doors were given struts that were so weak that they never fully opened. The engine was not sterling and new, but instead was an age old 2.6L V6 from a humble Renault 30; producing only a measly 130bhp that resulted in the car being woefully underpowered.
This was, however, only the tip of a very big iceberg of problems. The suspension had to be modified with springs, and the small windows on the tiny, low-slung cabin meant the driving experience was dark and claustrophobic. Perhaps, most jarringly, was the weakness of the alternator, which would run down in no time due to the demand of the car’s many electronic features. The result was the electronic central locking system often failing; locking the occupants inside until someone came to pry them out!
The lavish stainless steel body was easily stained even by fingerprints, there were panel gaps you could walk through, and because of its overall weight the car would handle like soap.
DeLorean couldn’t even get the price right. From the original, envisaged cost of $12,000, the DMC-12 ended up entering sales at $26,000; which, put it out of the price range of most people and meant it was now in the same price gap as the likes of the Porsche 911 and the Mercedes-Benz 560SL. Of course, the idea of the DeLorean, a cheaply made sports car built by an inexperienced workforce rocking up against the precision built, quality controlled might of pedigree engineering was akin to a Shetland Pony wanting to compete in the Grand National; it was never going to work!
Either way, the car went on sale in 1981 to a huge fan-fare; outselling Porsche in the U.S. market and having deposits backing up at showrooms across the States. Dealers frequently had to turn potential customers away because not enough cars were being delivered to supply demand; with waiting periods of up to a year long being noted in some instances.
However, the honeymoon soon wore off, and by 1982 only 4,500 of the proposed 10,000 cars per year were sold. In fact, only 8,000 cars would ever be built overall; meaning DeLorean had failed to reach this target on both accounts. The main nub of the DMC-12’s problem was its woeful build quality; with style-blinded, trend-setting, new money customers quickly finding their $26,000 toy was as reliable as the UK Parliament. In fact, even while DeLoreans were still being built, several mechanics and engineers opened shop across the USA to help fix the problems endemic to the car’s design and running.
One of particular note was in California, where newly imported DMC-12’s would be taken apart and put back together properly using parts donated from contemporary GMC models. Alternators came from Chevy trucks, panels were replaced so they would keep their shine, and that wheezy Renault V6 was replaced by a superb Corvette V8. Though this was an expensive option, many people took it in order to give the car the speed and performance it truly deserved.
In truth, the DeLorean was probably one of only a few instances in history where a car had to be fully rebuilt immediately after leaving the showroom.
DeLorean, however, continued to be ambitious, and floated the company on the stock market; upping production at the factory to make things look busy and putting raw recruits straight onto the shop floor. The result was Belfast’s workforce churning out thousands of cars that no one wanted and losing a fortune in the process. DeLorean kept this largely a secret from the workforce though, going by the rule that ignorance is bliss, and that his introduction of a major source of employment for the region was making him incredibly popular among the locals. Even the IRA left DeLorean alone due to his love by the people of Belfast, despite the fact that all around the factory the city echoed to the sound of explosions and pitched gun battles between themselves and the British Army.
Popularity among the locals, however, was not enough to reverse the company’s fortunes, and eventually DeLorean was forced to turn to the British Government for some extra money. However, the incumbent cabinet, led by the Conservative Mrs. Thatcher, was no longer willing to give subsidies to automakers following their confrontations with nationalised UK car builder British Leyland.
The end came when DeLorean was arrested by the FBI for brokering Cocaine deals to help fund the company. Although acquitted on the grounds of entrapment, the company went bust in 1983, and the 2,600 Belfast workers were turned away. However, so important was their employment to them that many workers broke back into the factory and continued to produce cars; even though the plant had been repossessed by the official receiver and was therefore not allowed to function. This didn’t matter to the people of Belfast, they had a dream of employment and they weren’t going to let it go without a fight. Tragically, the end had to come, and the workers did eventually go home permanently in mid-1983; destroying the economy of the local area in a time of such depression. The remaining cars, parts, equipment and tools were eventually auctioned off for peanuts, although the leftover frames have since been put together by enthusiasts to create working examples.
Of the £800 million put into the company by the American and British governments, the resulting accounting recalculations found that only about £100,000 of that could be reclaimed; with another $17 million disappearing without trace.
Colin Chapman, the founder and head of Lotus, and pivotal figure in the development of the DMC-12, would have served at least 10 years imprisonment for his part in the fraud if he had lived to see the trial; having succumb to a Heart Attack in 1982. DeLorean himself considered many different ideas after the collapse of his company, including a new form of monorail transport in the 1990’s that never went beyond the concept stage, as well as mutterings of a new car; the DMC2. However, none of his ventures came to fruition, with DeLorean famously stating the question “Would you buy a used car from me?”
By the early 2000’s he had retired largely from the business world, and while rumours circulated of his continual development on the DMC2, he passed away on March 19th, 2005 at the age of 80; bringing a quiet end to his controversial automotive career. Today, his humble gravestone in Troy, Michigan, is engraved with his most endearing legacy; a DMC-12 with its gullwing doors open.
However, the DMC-12 proved that there was a life after death, as it went on to find celebrity status in the fantastic Back to the Future trilogy. Based solely on its space age looks (the reliability of the cars used for the film being something of a huge joke among the cast and crew), a DMC-12 was converted by Dr. Emmett L. Brown into a time machine; which was more often than not driven across the fourth dimension by the teenage Marty McFly as he darted to and fro trying to fix the last thing he broke!
Regardless, the films were a smash hit and have since become a huge part of modern pop culture; thanks largely to the presence of the DMC-12. From an animated spin-off to allusions in other media such as the ridiculous movie Ready Player One, and various appearances in comedy sketches, the DMC-12 is truly a staple of cars in film; up there with the likes of the Batmobile, ECTO-1 and James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. In fact, try finding a DMC-12 these days that doesn’t, at the very least, have a flux capacitor positioned behind the driver’s seat like in the movies is like trying to find a needle in a haystack!
The love of the DMC-12 has translated so well that it was recently slated for revival in the form of production replica models. In January 2016, the DMC Texas company stated its intention to construct between 300 and 325 replicas costing around $100,000. These are proposed to be built to customer specification, including updated internal features, different engine types, and even the option for it to be electrically powered with the three-phase unit from a Tesla Model S. The start date for production has since been pushed back to 2019, but the hype continues to remain.
Today, the DMC-12 probably has among the highest survivability rates of any classic car. Whether it be for its place in pop-culture history, its wonderful looks, its criminal origins, or the fact that owners just have a real soft spot for it, of the 8,000 cars built there are approximately 6,000 still left in existence; which represents a survival rate of 75%.
Regardless, the DMC-12 was, and always will be, one of the world’s greatest headturner cars. One example, a red one, used to live not far from me back in Devon, and whenever it drifted by I couldn’t help but stare.
That’s the real attraction of the car. Despite its practical faults it was a perfect combination of cosmetics and controversy; timeless, beautiful Italian styling yoked onto a car built in such a hilariously incompetent way that it ended up being an icon of ambition outweighing reality.
The truth is, though, we shouldn’t vilify John DeLorean. Lord knows his heart was in the right place when he conceived the car way back in the early 1970’s, but it was a mixture of his lack of resources, an experienced workforce, and his hubris, that led to the overall failure of the machine. Like so many eccentrics who attempt to start a car firm, he was more focused on living the rockstar lifestyle of an acclaimed car designer rather than making sure what he was building wasn’t a four-wheeled catastrophe.
Then again, when you consider what an icon his car is today, even years after his passing, can the DMC-12 really be considered a true failure?
Food for thought…
- Looks – 10/10 – An absolute icon, no questions
- Comfort – 1/10 – It’s like driving in a coffin
- Practicality – 2/10 – A little bit of space behind the seats for smaller cases, but otherwise laughably useless as a car for more than two people on a long drive
- Features – 2/10 – Even by the standards of the 80’s it was lacking!
- Reliability – 2/10 – Built by an inexperienced workforce and became the butt of many a cruel joke. Even Back to the Future made fun of it when you count the number of times it broke down!
- Efficiency – 4/10 – Anywhere between 18 and 20mpg, which isn’t too bad when you consider its weight
- Quality – 1/10 – I don’t even know where to begin!
- Speed – 3/10 – Miserable performance, the weedy Renault V6 giving us a 0-60 of 9.5 seconds and a top speed of 125mph (no wonder it took Marty an age to get to 88mph!)
- Handling – 4/10 – Washy and full of understeer, you’ll spend more of your time going sideways!
- Price – 2/10 – The legendary status of these cars keep prices between £15,000 and £40,000, making it one of the more pricey classic cars you can find today
- Value – 8/10 – Set the asking price to whatever you want, I guarantee you someone will want to buy it
- Total – 39/110 – Perhaps the ultimate masochist’s car. The DMC-12 is dreadful to own and even worse to drive, but when you look at its wondrous Italian styling you’ll want one more than your next breath! 😀