Perhaps one of the greatest scandals 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. It spawned from a great idea, but resulted in the destruction of the car industry in Northern Ireland and the near imprisonment of the company’s founder John DeLorean.
John DeLorean (1925 – 2005) was a very talented car designer at the General Motors Corporation, designing many classics such as the Pontiac GTO and the Chevy Vega. Unsatisfied with his maverick way of business, especially when he chose to make a little underhanded money on the side, he was eventually let go from GMC in 1973, despite being the Vice-President.
But this was not the end of his story as he chose instead to create an ethical utopian sports car that wasn’t built with the planned obsolescence that the big Detroit businesses were building their cars. With that, he formed the DeLorean Motor Company, affectionately dubbed DMC.
Originally his plan was to open a factory in Puerto Rico, but eventually settled in Northern Ireland after £100 million was offered by the Northern Ireland Development Agency, who also made a deal that it would be funded by the British Government at a rate of which 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.
At the same time he 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.
However, beneath the futuristic body the car was very primitive. DeLorean had signed a deal with Lotus to help him develop the car, but this would ultimately result in the car being 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. Eventually 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. The build quality too was very much shambolic to say the least. The iconic Gullwing doors were given struts that were too weak and therefore never worked properly, resulting in them not fully opening. The engine was not sterling and new, but instead was an age old 2.6L V6 from a Renault 30, producing only a measly 130bhp resulting in the car being heavily underpowered. The suspension had to be modified with springs, the driving experience was claustrophobic and dark, the
alternator was too weak for the electronics and thus went flat in no time, often with the result of locking the occupants inside due to the electric central locking system, the stainless steel body was easily stained even by fingerprints, it had panel gaps that you could drive a bus through, the car handled like soap and was supposed to cost $12,000 but ended up entering sales at $26,000, which made it impossible to compete with similar Porsche’s and Merc’s of that price range which were also much, much better.
But either way the car went on sale in 1981 to a huge fan-fare, outselling Porsche and having deposits backing up at showrooms across America. However, the honeymoon soon wore off and by 1982 only 4,500 of the proposed 10,000 cars per year were sold. In fact eventually only 8,000 cars would be built, meaning DeLorean had failed to reach this target on both accounts. The aforementioned poor quality also hampered sales heavily, and the style blinded, trend-setting new money, who for the most part are not initiated with the knowledge of a car’s internal workings, were taken somewhat by surprise. In fact even while DeLorean’s were still being built, several mechanics and engineers opened shop to help fix the problems endemic to the car’s design and running. Most
notably was one in California, who, after you’d bought your brand new DeLorean, would take it apart and put it back together again properly using parts donated from other GMC cars. Alternators came from Chevy trucks, panels were replaced so they would keep their shine, and to replace that wheezy Renault engine, a Corvette V8 was also an option for the grunt and power such a car needed. The DeLorean was probably one of only a few instances in history when a car had to be fully rebuilt immediately after leaving the showroom.
But DeLorean 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 that Belfast’s workforce were churning out thousands of cars no one wanted and thus were losing a fortune. Eventually he turned to the British Government for some extra money, but the new government under Mrs. Thatcher was no longer willing to give subsidies following their confrontations with 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. In fact, even after the factory had closed, some of the workforce broke in and continued to produce cars, even though the plant had been repossessed by the official receiver and therefore was not allowed to function. This didn’t matter to the people of Belfast, who had a dream of employment that they didn’t want to lose. 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 chicken feed, although the remaining 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 DeLorean, would have served at least 10 years imprisonment for his part in the fraud if he had lived to see the trial, but had succumb to a Heart Attack in 1982.
But the DMC-12 went on to find a celebrity future as its space-age looks made it the perfect Time-Machine for the fantastic Back to the Future trilogy. But that is very much the thing that made the DMC-12 win in the end, the fact that even today seeing one parked on the street, people cannot help but stop and stare in fascination. In fact the DMC-12 was recently revived as a selection of replica models were built privately, proof that this car is still adored for its novelty, its looks, and the controversy of its name. Although not everyone knows about the trouble that surrounded this car’s short construction life, it is what most people recognise it by, a pure mixture of style and scandal, a car with a criminal past…