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The Harder They Fall: The Saga of the DeLorean Motor Company > Ate Up With Motor

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Clipped on: 2018-05-05
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JOHN DELOREAN: THE METEOR FROM PONTIAC

John Z. DeLorean’s 12½-year career at Pontiac has become the stuff of legend. He joined the division as director of advanced engineering in 1956, playing a key role in that division’s rebirth under Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen and Elliot (Pete) Estes. DeLorean became assistant chief engineer in 1959 and chief engineer two years later, leading the development of the unusual “rope-drive” Tempest, Pontiac’s novel OHC six, and the immortal GTO, along with an impressive array of patents and technical innovations.

By the time DeLorean became the division’s general manager in 1965, Pontiac led the domestic industry in engineering, styling, and merchandising. Nearly all of the division’s many successes, from the sporty Firebird to the stylish Grand Prix, bore DeLorean’s fingerprints.

Along the way, DeLorean had become a favorite of the automotive press. Tall (6’4″/192 cm), lanky, and athletic, he was a striking figure, with an ever-fashionable wardrobe and looks that were variously compared to Tyrone Power and Tom Jones. In a company known for gray flannel suits and stolid Republican values, he was a bit of a bad boy: more outspoken than was customary for a Detroit executive, often called on the carpet for some minor breach of corporate protocols, and raising conservative eyebrows by driving expensive foreign sports cars and dating (and eventually marrying) models and actresses half his age. In short, he was perhaps the ultimate fantasy figure for every underpaid automotive hack or working-class car nut in America.

Image (Asset 2/22) alt= GM publicity photo of John DeLorean, probably from his time at Chevrolet (1969-1972). DeLorean’s shaggy hair and prominent sideburns, very fashionable at the time, sat ill with some conservative GM executives, as did his stylish wardrobe. He also set tongues wagging when he had cosmetic surgery to improve his jawline. He later insisted the surgery was motivated not by vanity, but rather by the need to remove a chunk of impacted bone left over from a surgery he’d had as a child. (Copyright 2010 General Motors LLC. Used with permission, GM Media Archive)

Whatever DeLorean’s conflicts with GM’s conservative upper management — and there were many — no one could say the corporation didn’t reward results. DeLorean was only 40 when he became a GM vice president, the youngest general manager in the corporation’s history. Less than four years later, he was promoted to run Chevrolet, the largest and most important of GM’s automotive divisions. Three years after that, he became a group vice president, responsible for the entire car and truck group, with salary and bonuses totaling $650,000 a year and a $25,000 annual expense account. There was even talk that he would succeed Ed Cole as president of the corporation.

In April 1973, seemingly at the pinnacle of his success, DeLorean resigned. His own explanation was that he quit, frustrated with GM’s monotonous products and insular corporate culture. Afterward, there were rumors that his departure had not been entirely voluntary, but none of these whispered allegations was ever substantiated. The industry and the motoring press watched DeLorean’s exit with great interest, eager to see what he would do next.

Image (Asset 3/22) alt= The Pontiac GTO is generally considered the progenitor of the American Supercars of the sixties and early seventies. Although it was not the first of its kind, its success defined the genre. When Pete Estes and John DeLorean introduced this model in 1964, Pontiac sales manager Frank Bridge doubted it would sell 5,000 copies, but by 1966, it was selling nearly 20 times that number, inspiring many imitators.

By his own admission, DeLorean didn’t need to do anything. He was still drawing six-figure compensation from GM in the form of deferred bonuses and consulting fees and he had enough assets to maintain a comfortable lifestyle for himself, his adoptive son, and new wife Cristina Ferrare indefinitely, without ever having to work again. However, DeLorean was still relatively young and no one expected him to remain idle for long.

DeLorean spent a year as president of the National Alliance of Businessmen and made vague noises about developing a line of travel trailers. By early 1974, however, his thoughts were turning back to the auto industry and the idea of developing a car of his own.

Image (Asset 4/22) alt= One of the biggest successes of John DeLorean’s tenure at Chevrolet was the new Monte Carlo, Chevy’s answer to the popular Pontiac Grand Prix personal luxury car. The 1970-1972 Monte Carlo was actually developed under DeLorean’s predecessor, Pete Estes, although it didn’t go on sale until after DeLorean took over Chevrolet in February 1969. DeLorean was responsible, however, for the extraordinarily popular 1973–1977 Monte Carlo, which went on sale shortly after his promotion to group VP in late 1972.

THE ETHICAL SPORTS CAR

Given DeLorean’s tastes in automobiles, which ran to the likes of the Maserati Ghibli, it was inevitable that he would set out to build his own sports car. He saw a viable niche between the Chevrolet Corvette and the Porsche 911: expensive enough to be profitable at small volumes, but not so expensive as to compete directly with the high-end European exotics. DeLorean had tried several times to launch a new sports car at GM, first with the Pontiac Banshee (discussed in our articles on the Pontiac Fiero and OHC six), then with Chevrolet’s ill-fated mid-engine Corvette. On his own, he would finally have his chance.

Image (Asset 5/22) alt= One of the many cars in John DeLorean’s personal fleet during his time at GM was the Maserati Ghibli. Styled by Carrozzeria Ghia, the V8-powered Ghibli was the work of a young designer named Giorgetto Giugiaro, who would become one of the most influential stylists of the seventies — and the designer of DeLorean’s own DMC-12. (Photo: “WOI 2008 16” © 2008 Randy Stern; resized and modified 2015 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

The first problem was that his exit agreement included a non-compete clause. DeLorean apparently hoped that GM wouldn’t consider an expensive, limited-production sports car to be a threat to their business, but as soon as he began talking to dealers, GM terminated his bonus payments. In response, DeLorean commissioned Business Week editor J. Patrick Wright to co-author a scathing tell-all memoir, entitled On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant.

In the past, DeLorean’s public statements had often been characterized by a curious ambivalence. He would be frank and impolitic in one breath and in the next would studiously uphold the corporate party line. Now, he was positioning himself as the ultimate insider rebel, challenging GM on everything from its minority hiring policies to its attitude toward safety. Among other things, his book would include a condemnation of the controversial Chevrolet Corvair that would have gladdened the heart of Ralph Nader. DeLorean got cold feet about the book shortly after its completion in mid-1975, but Wright finally opted to publish it himself.

If DeLorean was to be the consummate foe of Detroit hypocrisy and shortsightedness, his car would have to be the perfect exponent of DeLorean’s purported values. It would be sporty, since DeLorean’s reputation had been built on sporty cars, but it would also be rationally sized, durable, fuel-efficient, and safe — the thinking man’s Supercar for the post-OPEC age. DeLorean called it an “ethical sports car.”

Image (Asset 6/22) alt= Another Giugiaro creation of the early seventies was the Maserati Merak, a cheaper, six-cylinder version of the Giugiaro-styled Maserati Bora. Like the DeLorean DMC-12, the Merak was powered by a 90-degree V6 engine — a 2,965 cc (181 cu. in.) version of the Maserati-designed V6 from the Citroën SM. (Photo: “Maserati Merak” © 2008 Brian Snelson; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

To engineer his new car, DeLorean hired a former colleague from Pontiac, Bill Collins, then leading the development of GM’s downsized 1977 full-size cars. For the exterior styling, DeLorean turned to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign, whose resume included the Maserati Bora and Merak, the Volkswagen Golf and Scirocco, and the Lotus Esprit. DeLorean specified that the car should have a mid-mounted engine, a plastic body, and stainless steel exterior panels. A target weight of only 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) would allow both sports-car performance and economy-car fuel economy. Despite its lightweight construction, the new car would have neatly integrated 10 mph (16 km/h) bumpers, with a bank of airbags providing 40 mph (64 km/h) barrier crash protection, far better than federal law required. The body would even be impervious to rust.

Early on, DeLorean called the new car the DSV, DeLorean Safety Vehicle, in part to secure an investment from the insurance company Allstate. The commercial failure of the Bricklin Safety Vehicle (SV-1) led him to deemphasize the safety aspect and by 1976, the car had been rechristened the DeLorean DMC-12.

Image (Asset 7/22) alt= John DeLorean wasn’t the only entrepreneur interested in safety-oriented, plastic-bodied sports cars in the early seventies. This is Malcolm Bricklin’s ill-fated Bricklin SV-1, offered from 1974 to 1976. Only about 3,000 copies were sold before the venture collapsed, at considerable cost to the Canadian province of New Brunswick, whose government had partially funded the SV-1’s manufacture. (Photo: “Bricklin SV-1 AMI” © 2007 Thomas doerfer; resized 2010 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license)

THE BIRTH OF DMC

Although DeLorean was by most standards a wealthy man, his own fortune was far short of what he would need to launch even a low-production sports car. To get his new car off the ground, he would need considerable support from dealers, suppliers, and investors.

To that end, his greatest assets were his reputation and his singular charisma. DeLorean once claimed that he had always been an introvert, but in his early twenties, he had decided to bolster his people skills with a stint as a door-to-door insurance salesman. By the seventies, he was a formidable salesman of considerable personal magnetism. Some skeptical observers, like Irish politician Des O’Malley, found DeLorean’s charm more suspicious than ingratiating, but even people who were predisposed to dislike him (like inventor Pete Avery, who alleged that DeLorean cheated him out of thousands of dollars in patent royalties) found him hard to resist.

Image (Asset 8/22) alt= The DeLorean DMC-12’s distinctive gullwing doors, counterbalanced with torsion bars, were part of the original specification. Aside from their obvious dramatic effect, DeLorean claimed that the doors were a safety feature, allowing high sills that improved the DMC-12’s side-impact protection. Lotus, which re-engineered the DMC-12 in the late seventies, was not thrilled about the doors from a technical standpoint, but DeLorean insisted; the gullwing doors became one of the car’s most recognizable features.

With DeLorean’s impressive resume and persuasive powers, he had little difficulty finding wealthy backers. He sweetened the deal with canny financial maneuvering. Although the DeLorean Motor Company was incorporated in 1975, much of DeLorean’s fundraising was conducted through a convoluted array of holding companies, including the John Z. DeLorean Corporation, the DeLorean Sports Car Partnership, the DeLorean Manufacturing Company, and the DeLorean Research Limited Partnership. The main purpose of these corporations was to maximize the potential tax benefits for investors, but the array of different companies made a thorough analysis of DeLorean’s financial holdings a daunting proposition. To the end of his life, DeLorean maintained that it was all perfectly legal, but the complex paper trail would add fuel to later charges of financial malfeasance.

THE PROTOTYPE DELOREAN DMC-12

By October 1976, DeLorean and Collins had a running prototype, built by Triad Manufacturing Co. The prototype was cosmetically finished, but it was far from production spec. The chassis was based on that of the Fiat X1/9, with the engine and transaxle borrowed from a Citroën CX and a front suspension cobbled together from Ford Pinto/Mustang II parts. Some features, like the promised airbags, existed only on paper and the Elastic Reservoir Molding (ERM) process that was supposed to form the frameless plastic body structure was still just a talking point.

DeLorean allowed the press to see and sit in the prototype in early 1977, but he refused to let them drive it, saying it wouldn’t be representative. It didn’t matter — DeLorean’s name was still golden and the gullwing prototype made the cover of nearly every car magazine in the world.

Image (Asset 9/22) alt= The DeLorean DMC-12’s stainless steel skin was one of its most recognizable features, but it was a mixed blessing. It didn’t rust, but it scratched easily and even when freshly buffed some observers thought it made the DMC-12 look more like a kitchen appliance than a high-end sports car. DMC and DuPont worked on an unusual transparent lacquer that would allow DeLorean to offer cars in various colors, but DuPont engineers were leery about the lacquer’s durability, so the paint never made production. Although some customers had their cars painted after purchase, all production DeLoreans were unpainted stainless steel except for a handful of special cars with 24-carat gold panels built for an American Express credit card promotion.

Although the Triad prototype had a four-cylinder Citroën engine, DeLorean and Collins wanted a V6 for the production car. (Early talk of using the two-rotor Comotor Wankel from the Citroën GS Birotor died with Citroën’s bankruptcy in 1974.) They considered Ford’s Cologne V6, used in the Ford Capri, Granada, and Mustang II, but they ultimately settled on the new PRV engine, a 90-degree V6 developed as a joint venture between Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo. The 2,664 cc (163 cu. in.) PRV engine was more expensive than the Cologne V6, but was lighter and more powerful. Since Renault had more capacity than they could use, they were also more open to a deal. Furthermore, Renault and Volvo already had plans to federalize the PRV engine, which would allow DMC some money-saving shortcuts in the EPA certification process.

The adoption of the PRV engine imposed the first of many compromises to the original design. Since the DMC-12 was going to use a Renault engine, it was expedient to use Renault transaxles as well: the five-speed manual and three-speed automatic units from the Renault 30. While these were far less expensive than developing a bespoke transmission, their use necessitated mounting the (longitudinal) engine behind the rear axle rather than in front of it, making the DMC-12 a rear-engine car. (Renault did much the same thing with its rear-engine Alpine A310 sports car in 1976.) DeLorean dismissed the switch from a mid-engine to a rear-engine layout as trivial, but the move raised some eyebrows, especially after his attack on the handling of the rear-engine Corvair became public.

Image (Asset 10/22) alt= The DeLorean DMC-12’s engine and transaxles were adapted from the front-wheel-drive Renault 30, launched in 1975. Renault originally planned to bring the 30 to the U.S., but eventually abandoned those plans in favor of an alliance (no pun intended) with American Motors. (Photo © 2007 Rudolf Stricker; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

Although DeLorean and Collins had yet to install the V6 in an actual car, they didn’t hesitate to offer projected performance figures: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit under 8 seconds, a top speed of 130 mph (209 km/h), and EPA city/highway mileage of 22/29 (25.2 mpg combined, 9.3 L/100 km). Those figures promised to make the DMC-12 almost as fast as a 12-cylinder Jaguar XJ-S with about half the Jaguar’s thirst.

DeLorean optimistically proclaimed that production would begin by the fall of 1978 and he had already hired Dick Brown (who had previously established Mazda’s U.S. distribution network) to line up dealer franchises. All DeLorean needed to start building the DMC-12 was a factory, workers, and another $87 million to pay for it all.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

DeLorean had already lined up some financing and was confident that he could find more, but it would not be nearly enough. He also recognized that he could not expect to raise the rest of the money through stock offerings alone. The target for DMC’s initial public offering, floated in mid-1977, was 2 million shares at a starting price of $5 per share, still insufficient.

However, DeLorean soon discovered an intriguing alternative. The economic travails of the seventies had led governments in many areas to offer substantial incentives to industry in hopes of creating local jobs. Many of those incentives were in the form of tax credits, but some governments were willing to make direct equity investments. If DeLorean played his cards right, it might be possible to build his factory with taxpayer money.

DMC made overtures to various state and local governments in the U.S. as well as the governments of Spain and Portugal, but none offered the kind of investment DeLorean was looking for. In early 1977, he learned that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was very interested in establishing an automotive plant outside Aguadilla, on the site of the former Ramey Air Force Base. With the support of the U.S. State Department, the Puerto Rican government put together a cash incentive package worth some $64.8 million, enough to put DMC’s initial funding targets within reach.

Image (Asset 11/22) alt= The production DeLorean DMC-12 looks a great deal like the early prototypes (although there are many minor differences), but there were substantial changes to the structure and suspension, including the addition of a steel backbone frame, manufactured in England by GKN. Bill Collins’ original specification called for double wishbones in back, but the production car substituted semi-trailing arms and upper and lower lateral links, modeled on the rear suspension of the Lotus Esprit.

Although the Puerto Rican deal sounded very promising, the negotiations dragged on into 1978. During that time, DeLorean sought to hedge his bets by making a similar pitch to the Republic of Ireland’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA). Although the IDA ultimately rejected his proposal, his trip was not in vain. A local attorney suggested to DeLorean that there might be a richer opportunity in British-controlled Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland was then in the throes of the Troubles — an almost comically banal euphemism for a decade of riots, bombings, and assassinations that had left more than 2,000 dead. Roy Mason, the Labour Party’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, responded by jailing hundreds of suspected insurgents, but a devastated economy and harrowing unemployment provided a steady stream of recruits for the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Mason concluded that the only effective way to undermine support for the IRA was to improve the local economy, which meant creating new jobs.

In the spring of 1978, DeLorean approached the Northern Ireland Development Agency (NIDA), proposing the establishment of a DMC factory in Ulster that would create at least 2,000 jobs in the region. The factory would be a symbol of hope for the troubled Belfast area and potentially the beginning of a new industrial base. NIDA chairman Sir Kenneth Cork was skeptical, but Roy Mason and Northern Ireland Minister of State Don Concannon supported DeLorean’s proposal and a deal was reached in only 46 days.

In late July 1978, the British government agreed to give DMC £16.5 million (about $31.7 million) in loans and £22 million (about $42.2 million) in grants, plus an additional £17.8 million (about $34.2 million) as an equity investment in a new holding company, DeLorean Motor Cars Ltd. The holding company’s principal asset would be the new factory, to be built on a 72-acre (29-hectare) marshland in the village of Dunmurry in West Belfast. The package brought DMC’s total capitalization to a claimed $156 million.

The DMC deal sat ill with Britain’s Conservative Party. The previous Labour government’s nationalization of the troubled British Leyland auto consortium a few years earlier had been a disaster, leaving the Conservative opposition extremely wary of direct subsidies to industry. Nonetheless, the violence in Northern Ireland was an ongoing political liability and the Tories were hesitant to block a deal that seemed to offer some hope. Whether they liked it or not, the British were now stuck with DeLorean.

LOTUS AND DELOREAN

With the British investment, DMC’s future looked bright, but the car itself was still not ready. To the frustration of Bill Collins, the second prototype, built by Detroit’s Creative Industries, had been a poorly finished mess. With groundbreaking on the new factory slated for October 1978, Collins admitted that DMC needed outside engineering help.

Collins and DeLorean approached Porsche and BMW, but both companies wanted far more money and more time than DMC could afford. DeLorean then turned to Colin Chapman of England’s Lotus Group, which had considerable experience with plastic bodies. That fall, Chapman signed a contract for Lotus to re-engineer the DMC-12 for production.

Image (Asset 12/22) alt= In early 1979, DeLorean commissioned Giugiaro to update his now four-year-old design for the DeLorean DMC-12, redesigning the side windows, quarter panes, and vents as well as adding the rear louvers. Although the changes were relatively minor, they were expensive and contributed to the car’s production delays. Rear visibility is not among the DMC-12’s strong suits, although admittedly few mid-engine sports cars score well in that area.

Bill Collins left the company for AMC in March 1979, frustrated that his suggestions for improving Lotus’s engineering efforts, which he considered slapdash, were being ignored. To replace him, DeLorean appointed Mike Loasby of Aston Martin as director of engineering and hired former Chrysler president Gene Cafiero as DMC’s president and CEO.

The DMC-12 project was a major undertaking for Lotus, involving more than half its modest staff. Since time was short, Lotus engineers discarded much of Collins’ original design, substituting features from the contemporary Lotus Esprit. The biggest casualty was the ERM plastic body, which was replaced by a two-piece fiberglass structure using Colin Chapman’s patented Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection (VARI) process, licensed from Lotus at considerable cost. Because fiberglass lacked the strength and rigidity of ERM, Lotus was obliged to add a steel backbone frame, similar to that of the Esprit. Discarded in the process were the long-promised 10 mph (16 km/h) bumpers and airbags. The latter would have posed a great challenge; at the time, few off-the-shelf airbag systems were available and neither Lotus nor DMC had the resources to design and test their own.

Other than the Giugiaro styling, the main element carried over from the original design was the PRV engine. Renault had decided not to federalize the R30, but Volvo had introduced a U.S. version of the 2,664 cc (163 cu. in.) PRV V6 in the Volvo 260 Series in 1976 and federalized the larger 2,849 cc (174 cu. in.) engine for 1980. The engines used by DMC were of a hybrid specification, combining the cylinder heads and Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection of U.S.-market Volvos with the bottom end of the Alpine A310 version. Since the DMC-12 was lighter than the Volvo 260 Series and the DMC engine was tuned identically, the EPA allowed DMC to skip the otherwise-mandatory 50,000-mile (81,000-km) durability test, which Volvo had already successfully completed.

Image (Asset 13/22) alt= The DeLorean DMC-12 was powered by the PRV engine, a 2,849 cc (174 cu. in.) aluminum SOHC V6 purchased from Renault. Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo started work on this engine in 1971 and production began in October 1974. The PRV was manufactured in several iterations, ranging in size from 2,664 to 2,975 cc (163 to 182 cu. in.). Production continued through June 1998 and eventually totaled 970,315 engines.

The DMC-12’s engine had the same output as its Franco-Swedish cousins: 130 hp (97 kW) and 162 lb-ft (220 N-m) of torque. That was about what Bill Collins had anticipated, but Lotus’s structural redesign had left the production car some 500 lb (227 kg) heavier than originally planned. The DMC-12 still met its EPA mileage targets, but the extra weight and taller gearing would take their toll on performance.

TEETHING PAINS

Although the Dunmurry factory was finished by early summer 1980, the work at Lotus ran months behind schedule and DMC Ltd. eventually had to finish some of the contracted work itself. Those delays left DMC painfully short of cash, so in late 1980, DeLorean persuaded the British government to put in an additional £24 million (about $53 million) in development grants and loan guarantees.

Pilot production began in December and the first true production cars rolled off the line on January 21, 1981. It was none too soon; despite the last-minute infusion of government money, DMC entered 1981 with an $18.6 million shortfall, which was actually more than DeLorean had estimated when he asked the British for the additional money.

Still, the excitement surrounding the new car was reaching its peak. The motoring press had faithfully reported each new development, hoping for a chance to drive the car they’d heard so much about. Dick Brown had lined up more than 340 U.S. dealerships, many of whom were accepting deposits of up to $5,000. Celebrity investors like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. were waiting eagerly to collect their promised early-production cars.

Spirits were also high in Ulster. Although many employees at Dunmurry were new to the auto business, they were enthusiastic and dedicated. Absenteeism was very low and despite the fact that the plant employed nearly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, internal strife was reportedly minimal. DMC Ltd. could not paper over the conflicts outside the factory walls — for example, the death of hunger-striking political prisoner Bobby Sands in May may have led to an apparently accidental firebombing of the factory — but DMC employees and many local residents regarded the operation with pride.

Image (Asset 14/22) alt= As is typical of low-production cars, many of the DeLorean’s components — including interior pieces like the steering wheel — were borrowed from other cars. Nonetheless, contemporary critics liked the DeLorean DMC-12’s well-appointed cabin. The low build and high sills can make entry and exit a little awkward, but ergonomics are decent and forward visibility is no worse than in any number of modern family sedans. Legroom is excellent and headroom surprisingly good, although your 5’9″ (175 cm) author found the proximity of the headliner to his forehead disconcerting and faintly claustrophobic.

Sadly, the early cars didn’t live up to the hype. The factory had planned an ambitious and rigorous testing schedule, but by spring, there was too much pressure to bring the car to market. Build quality of the first few hundred cars off the line was embarrassingly shoddy; most had to be extensively rebuilt in the U.S. at great cost. The fact that many went to prominent investors only made matters worse.

The American press tried to be generous, acknowledging but excusing the poor build quality while praising the DMC-12’s styling and interior design. Reactions to the DeLorean’s handling were mixed. Despite its pronounced rear weight bias, the fat rear tires mostly eliminated oversteer and the DMC-12 rode and handled well in relaxed driving. Pushed too hard, however, it could feel twitchy and unsettled, suggesting excessive deflection of either the suspension bushings, the mountings joining the fiberglass body and steel frame, or perhaps both.

The greatest disappointment was straight-line performance. With the standard five-speed, DMC claimed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 8.5 seconds, but most testers found that figure optimistic by a least a second. The factory’s claim of a 125 mph (201 km/h) top speed was generous by perhaps 6-7 mph (10-11 km/h) and top-gear acceleration was leisurely.

The DeLorean’s real-world performance was hardly awful by the standards of 1981, but it lagged well behind other GTs in the DMC-12’s price class. By 1981, inflation and exchange rate fluctuations had pushed the DMC-12’s U.S. retail price to $25,500, more than twice the original target. The DeLorean was still cheaper than a Porsche 911SC, albeit not by much, but was fully 25% more expensive than a Corvette, Datsun 280-ZX Turbo, or Porsche 924 Turbo, all of which were significantly faster. DeLorean dismissed such concerns, saying the typical buyer was more concerned with cruising in style than drag racing. He also promised that a future twin-turbo version would put the DMC-12 firmly in the Supercar category.

Image (Asset 15/22) alt= The production DeLorean DMC-12 is 168 inches (4,267 mm) long on a 94.8-inch (2,408mm) wheelbase, standing only 44.9 inches (1,140 mm) high. Although it was almost 16 inches (400 mm) shorter than a contemporary Corvette, the DMC-12 was nearly 9 inches wider: 78.3 inches (1,990 mm) overall. The DMC-12’s curb weight is about 2,750 lb (1,247 kg), more than 500 lb (227 kg) heavier than originally planned.

BLEEDING MONEY

Although DeLorean remained buoyantly optimistic throughout 1981, saying the company would soon be selling 30,000 cars a year, DMC was losing money at an alarming rate. Fixing the early build problems cost more than $2.5 million while warranty claims amounted to another $1.5 million. DMC was also obliged to pay the British government £185 (nearly $400) for each car sold, cutting into the company’s per-car margins. DeLorean, meanwhile, was living as lavishly as ever with an annual salary of $500,000 and a generous expense account.

Some observers, including DeLorean’s British office manager, Marion Gibson, wondered how the company had burned through so much money so quickly. In October 1981, Gibson went first to Tory MP Sir Nicholas Winterton and then the British tabloids with allegations that DeLorean was diverting company funds for his own use, but a brief police investigation found nothing.

DeLorean’s solution to the company’s cash deficit was to hire hundreds more workers and double production in hopes of boosting revenues. Customers, however, were becoming scarce. The American economy took a turn for the worse late in the year, thanks in part to an unusually severe winter. Most of the early speculators and wealthy gadflies were now sated. DMC dealers were left with large stockpiles of unsold cars and banks began to cancel dealers’ floor-plan financing.

Image (Asset 16/22) alt= To quell any tendency to oversteer caused by the DeLorean DMC-12’s 62% rear weight bias, DMC specified unequal wheel and tire sizes: 195/60HR-14 in front, 235/60HR-15 in back. DeLorean and Bill Collins originally wanted to use Pirelli P7 tires, as found on many high-end sports cars of the era, but cost concerns led to the use of cheaper Goodyear NCTs on the production car; the owner of this car has substituted modern Michelins. The DMC-12’s distinctive alloy wheels came from Kent Alloys, an affiliate of GKN, which also made the car’s backbone frame.

All the while, the factory kept churning out more cars. With no customers, DeLorean Motor Company of America simply stopped paying for cars. By the end of the year, the American company owed DMC Ltd. around $10 million for cars already delivered, leaving the Belfast subsidiary unable to pay its own suppliers.

DeLorean pressed the British for even more money: another £35 million (about $70 million). Since the Conservative Thatcher government was understandably nervous about the £77 million-odd (approximately $154 million) it had already invested, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Jim Prior hired Sir Kenneth Cork of Coopers & Lybrand — who had opposed the DeLorean deal as chairman of the NIDA — to conduct an extensive study of DMC’s operations. Sir Kenneth’s report advised against offering further credit without a complete reorganization.

By February 1982, DMC was more than $800,000 in arrears on its interest payments and suppliers like Renault were making threatening noises. On February 19, the British forced DMC Ltd. into receivership, appointing Sir Kenneth and Paul Shewell as the official receivers. DeLorean was no longer in control of DMC Ltd.’s operations. Unless he could come up with another $20 million to pay off its outstanding debts, the company was doomed.

DESPERATE MEASURES

The receivers agreed to keep the Dunmurry factory operating until May 31, albeit with a dramatically reduced staff. There were no new cars, but workers completed the remaining half-assembled vehicles to facilitate liquidation.

Image (Asset 17/22) alt= The Dunmurry factory manufactured around 7,500 cars in 1981, but DMC sold only about 3,000 of those while the rest piled up in Belfast. Although the 1982 car’s base price was upped by more than $3,000, the excessive supply led dealers to offer substantial price cuts. By the end, it was possible to buy a new DMC-12 for less than $20,000.

Meanwhile, DMC executives were beginning to jump ship. Gene Cafiero was already gone and Dick Brown was fired in March. DeLorean brought in his old business partner Roy Nesseth to clean house and keep creditors at bay; DMC of America’s offices in Irvine, California, had trouble even paying its utility bills.

DeLorean spent the spring and summer of 1982 playing for time. Coopers & Lybrand would not allow him to resume production without an earnest payment of at least $10 million, which DeLorean didn’t have. Finally, in early October, he offered the receivers a deal: DeLorean would invest $10 million of his own money — actually a short-term loan from Virginia-based Financial Services Inc. — and the investment firm Minet Finance Management would then loan him an additional $100 million to cover all the outstanding debts and purchase the DMC Ltd. factory outright.

Sir Kenneth Cork, who was neither charmed nor intimidated by DeLorean and had become increasingly annoyed with what he perceived as DeLorean’s stalling tactics, was skeptical of this convoluted scheme. However, Sir Kenneth said it would be acceptable provided it was completed by October 20.

DeLorean didn’t make it. In the evening of October 19, 1982, he was arrested in a Los Angeles hotel room for conspiracy to distribute more than $24 million of cocaine.

Upon learning of the arrest, Sir Kenneth contacted DeLorean’s New York office and found that the loan transaction had not been completed; with DeLorean behind bars, there seemed little chance that it would be. The receivers immediately shut down DMC Ltd., sending its 35 remaining employees home. DMC of America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection six days later. In November, Consolidated International, the parent company of the Big Lots discount store chain, purchased many of DMC’s unsold cars along with the distribution rights. Some of the remaining cars were re-serialed and sold as 1983 models, but the DeLorean Motor Company was finished. John DeLorean’s troubles, however, were only beginning.

Image (Asset 18/22) alt= One of the odder aspects of the DeLorean DMC-12’s sporty interior is the 85 mph (137 km/h) speedometer, then required by federal law; actual top speed is closer to 120 mph (193 km/h). Most DMC-12s were left-hand drive, but about 35 right-hand-drive versions were built for the UK market, all with 140 mph (225 k/h) speedometers. When DMC Ltd. went into receivership, the company was also working on a European version with an uncatalyzed engine, rated at 156 hp DIN (115 kW). Only a few were built before the company closed in October.

ON TRIAL

Inevitably, there were several conflicting accounts of how John DeLorean ended up being led out of the Sheraton Plaza hotel in handcuffs in October 1982. The common thread was a man named James Timothy Hoffman, who had once been DeLorean’s neighbor in Pauma Valley, California, where they first met in April 1978. By the time they met again in 1982, Hoffman — unbeknownst to DeLorean — was now a paid federal informant, working with FBI and DEA agents to snare suspected cocaine smugglers W. Morgan Hetrick and Stephen Arrington.

According to Hoffman, DeLorean contacted him in July 1982 to ask for Hoffman’s help in setting up a drug deal to save DeLorean’s failing company. According to DeLorean, Hoffman called DeLorean’s New York offices in July 1982 with an unsolicited offer to help DeLorean raise $15 million from what he later described as “offshore” investors in exchange for a commission and expenses totaling $1.8 million. Either way, Hoffman subsequently introduced DeLorean to Morgan Hetrick, Stephen Arrington, a purported trafficker named “Vicenza” (actually DEA Agent John Valestra), and a “Mr. Benedict,” supposedly an official of Eureka Federal Savings and Loan (actually FBI Special Agent Benedict Tisa).

Federal agents alleged that DeLorean offered to put up $1.8 million toward the purchase of 100 kilos (220 lb) of cocaine. The agents further claimed that the deal, which DeLorean and Hoffman had allegedly discussed in Washington, DC, in September, was for Hetrick and Arrington to import the drugs from Colombia, “Vicenza” to distribute them, and “Benedict” to launder the money. DeLorean would receive the cash proceeds of the sale in exchange for giving “Vicenza” a 50% stake in the reorganized DeLorean Motor Company.

In a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone, DeLorean insisted that he was not initially aware that the deal involved drugs, only a potential investment in his ailing company. He also alleged that Hoffman had threatened DeLorean’s children when DeLorean attempted to pull out of the deal. Furthermore, DeLorean pointed out that the $1.8 million “commission” was not even his money. It was actually loaned to him by Special Agent Tisa, still in his guise as a crooked banker, in exchange for stock in a new shell company called DeLorean Motor Cars Incorporated.

After 10 days in Los Angeles County Jail, DeLorean was released on a $2.5 million bond, loudly proclaiming his innocence. Nonetheless, his arrest was front-page news for more than a year, particularly after the press received leaked copies of the FBI surveillance tape of DeLorean’s final meeting with “Vicenza” and “Benedict” prior to his arrest, which showed DeLorean hefting a packet of cocaine and declaring it “better than gold.”

The DeLorean case generated endless jokes and tabloid gossip and DeLorean’s newfound notoriety spawned a series of magazine stories and unauthorized biographies that painted his past business dealings in a very negative light. Even his much-publicized embrace of born-again Christianity — the product, he said, of a jailhouse epiphany — did little to salvage his reputation.

DeLorean was tried in a Los Angeles federal court in the summer of 1984. He never took the stand during the 62-day trial. Defense attorney Howard Weitzman told the jury that not only was DeLorean not guilty, federal agents had lied to him and tricked him to maneuver him into an incriminating position on the word of an informant who by his own admission had cooperated with the sting at least partly in order to avoid prison time. Particularly damaging to the government’s case was federal agents’ admission that they had shown DeLorean the cocaine (which they, not he, had brought to the hotel room) specifically to elicit his reaction for the surveillance tape.

On August 16, the jury acquitted DeLorean of all charges. Although some jurors expressed doubts about DeLorean’s guilt or innocence, Judge Robert Takasugi had instructed them to find DeLorean not guilty if they believed he had been entrapped, which the panel unanimously agreed he had been.

Although DeLorean was set free, the victory was costly, both personally and financially; Christina Ferrare filed for divorce after the trial was over, requesting custody of their two children.

DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Despite his acquittal, DeLorean’s legal problems were far from over. Shortly after shutting down DMC Ltd. in October 1982, the British receivers began sorting through the company’s labyrinthine financial records, looking for evidence of financial impropriety.

The receivers found that DeLorean’s 1978 deal with Colin Chapman for the re-engineering of the DMC-12 had called for Lotus to be paid through a Geneva-based holding company called GPD Services, allegedly run by two of Chapman’s longtime friends. DeLorean had transferred $17.65 million to GPD, $5.1 million from DMC Ltd., the rest from one of his U.S. research partnerships. When the receivers investigated, however, they reported that none of those funds had gone to Lotus and that Lotus had billed DMC Ltd. directly for for its engineering services, which totaled about $23 million. The receivers claimed that the GPD money had simply disappeared.

Image (Asset 19/22) alt= Some British critics dismissed the production DeLorean as little more than a re-skinned, federalized Lotus Esprit. There were obvious similarities between the two, including Giugiaro styling, but the DMC-12 had much less in common with the Esprit than did, say, a contemporary Pontiac Firebird had with the equivalent Camaro. Given that the Esprit was substantially more expensive than the DeLorean, we doubt many prospective buyers considered the resemblance a bad thing. (Photo: “Lotus Esprit” © 2006 Thomas doerfer; resized 2010 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

After DMC of America filed for Chapter 11, its creditors appointed a committee to investigate further. During the course of that investigation, the committee, led by attorney Malcolm Schade, representing the British government, reported that about half the missing GPD funds had eventually ended up in one of DeLorean’s personal accounts, where it was used to finance the purchase of a Utah-based snowplow company called Logan Manufacturing. The remaining GPD money was never accounted for. Schade alleged that the GPD deal was only one facet of a systematic effort to divert DMC funds to unrelated business ventures.

In 1985, federal prosecutors in Detroit charged DeLorean with fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering. Northern Ireland’s Department of Economic Development (later renamed the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment) also sued the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, which had audited DMC Ltd.’s books, for not reporting the questionable transactions.

At DeLorean’s trial in October 1986, attorney Howard Weitzman admitted that his client had received the money from GPD, but insisted that it was a legitimate personal loan from Colin Chapman. DeLorean denied any knowledge of fraud or of the fate of the missing money. Since Chapman had died of a heart attack in December 1982, the prosecution was unable to disprove or discredit DeLorean’s account and DeLorean was acquitted two months later.

The British government was not satisfied with that verdict and Scotland Yard’s Special Fraud Office continued its own investigation. In June 1989, British police arrested former Lotus managing director Fred Bushell, who later pleaded guilty to fraud charges. The crown also filed charges against DeLorean, but his attorneys successfully resisted all attempts to extradite him.

TIME MACHINE

Although the DeLorean Motor Company was now defunct, the DMC-12’s finest hour arrived in July 1985 with the premiere of the popular science fiction film Back to the Future. The film’s DeLorean, converted into a nuclear-powered time machine by Dr. Emmett Brown (played by actor Christopher Lloyd), became a cinematic icon, also appearing in the film’s two sequels, a 26-episode Saturday morning cartoon show, and later a theme park ride. The Back to the Future franchise did much to restore the tarnished image of the DMC-12. Shortly after the original film’s release, John DeLorean sent director/writer Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale an earnest thank-you letter.

Image (Asset 20/22) alt= The world’s most famous DeLorean DMC-12 was capable of breaking the time barrier when it reached 88 mph (142 km/h). This is not an actual movie car, but one of various fan-created replicas. In a way, that’s thoroughly appropriate, because during the film’s production, Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale told the art department that they wanted the time machine to look like it was homemade! The white projection above the rear deck is a replica of the “Mr. Fusion” reactor, which replaced the time-traveling car’s original plutonium fuel cells at the end of the first film. (Photo: “8.8 miles per hour” © 2007 Dave Parry; used with permission)

The film helped more than DeLorean’s name recognition; the licensing fees he earned from toy versions of the movie car helped to pay his mounting legal bills. Aside from the criminal charges, DeLorean was also faced with a host of civil lawsuits, including one filed by his brother Charles, a former DMC dealer. DeLorean always came out on top, but the constant legal battles were expensive. One of DeLorean’s attorneys, Mayer Morganroth, later sued DeLorean for $4 million in unpaid legal fees.

His personal finances drained, DeLorean filed for bankruptcy in 1999. Most of his assets were auctioned off by the court. He tried various other business ventures, but his remaining legal bills ate up most of the profits. A plan to build a lightweight sports car in partnership with aviation entrepreneur Burt Rutan came to nothing.

DeLorean died on March 19, 2005, at the age of 80. He was buried in blue jeans and a black motorcycle jacket, playing the rebel to the end.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

In 1997, Arthur Andersen settled with the British government for $35 million, followed two years later by a $27.75 million settlement with other DMC creditors. With that accomplished, the DeLorean Motor Company’s bankruptcy proceedings were belatedly settled in 2000.

Former Lotus executive Fred Bushell died on January 14, 2006, at the age of 78. Although he ultimately served more than three years in prison, Bushell shed no light on the fate of the missing GPD money. With Chapman, DeLorean, and Bushell all dead, the truth may never be known.

Sources vary as to exactly how many DeLorean DMC-12s were built; the total was something between 8,500 and 8,900. A remarkable number of those cars survive today. As DeLorean had planned, the DMC-12’s body does not rust and once the build problems were sorted, the car proved to be reasonably reliable. The overproduction of mid-1981 also proved an unexpected blessing, ensuring a robust supply of spare parts.

In 1997, Houston, Texas mechanic Stephen Wynne bought the remaining parts inventory along with the original engineering diagrams and the rights to the DMC name and logo. Initially, Wynne’s revived DeLorean Motor Company offered spares and restoration services, but in late 2008, the company also began selling new-build DMC-12s assembled from a combination of new and original parts.

REQUIEM FOR A REBEL

We suspect it will be some time before history decides exactly what to make of John Zachary DeLorean. When he died in 2005, the British press showed little mercy, characterizing him as a slick con artist and noting that when he died, the crown still had an outstanding warrant for his arrest on fraud charges. The American press was kinder, remembering the heyday of Pontiac and the GTO first, the drug bust and the collapse of DMC second.

It’s worth noting that for all the accusations and allegations, John DeLorean was never convicted of any of the crimes of which he was charged and accused. He always had a ready explanation for every setback and he never admitted any wrongdoing. Moreover, DeLorean’s achievements were as spectacular as his eventual downfall. To successfully launch a new car company is no small feat. Even Henry Kaiser, one of the greatest industrialists of the 20th century, fell short in that difficult arena, but DeLorean came remarkably close to pulling it off.

If the DMC-12 was not a great car, it was at least a workable one. Bill Collins, who had been very critical of its re-engineering, eventually admitted that Lotus had done a surprisingly good job. According to the late Sir Kenneth Cork, Coopers & Lybrand’s 1982 study concluded that there was a sustainable market for the DMC-12, albeit not as large as DeLorean had hoped. Even Malcolm Schade thought the company could have survived had it not been for the financial improprieties.

DeLorean always said that the DMC-12 was just the beginning. Aside from the mooted twin-turbo version, he had been toying with ideas for a follow-on luxury sedan since at least 1979. The maximum capacity of the Dunmurry factory was 300,000 units a year, BMW-rivaling volume in those days, and the mid-eighties were a boom time for luxury cars. If DMC had weathered the storm of 1981–82, DeLorean’s larger ambitions might not have been so far-fetched.

Perhaps that is the ultimate tragedy of DeLorean — the car, the company, and the man: not how far they fell, but how much higher they could have climbed.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Kathy Adelson of the GM Media Archive, which supplied the GM file photo of John DeLorean; Dave Parry, for the use of his photo; the docents at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California; and Tamir Ardon, whose extensive study of DeLorean’s life and career provided an invaluable starting point for research for this article.


RELATED ARTICLES


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for the life and career of John DeLorean, the history of DMC, and the DMC-12 included Kurt Anderson, Barbara B. Dolan, and Joseph Pilcher, “A Life in the Fast Lane,” TIME 1 November 1982, pp. 34-36; Jason Barlow, “Grand Theft Auto,” CAR June 2005, pp. 68-73; the the BBC4 documentary Car Crash: The DeLorean Story (producer: Jezz Wright, director: Paul McGuigan, United Kingdom: Mint Productions/BBC4, May 2004); Gene Booth, “Man in the Tiger Suit,” Car Life, August 1965, pp. 13-15, 26; Greg Gorman, “Howard L. Weitzman,” Emily Couric, ed., The Trial Lawyers: The Nation’s Top Litigators Tell How They Win (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), pp. 79-113; Michael Daly, “The Real De Lorean Story,” New York Magazine 8 November 1982, pp. 30-38; Remarks of Bill Collins, “DMCTalk Interview: Bill Collins” (posted by “Ilan,” 12 April 2008, DMCTalk.com, www.dmctalk. com/ showthread.php?t=8692, accessed 27 July 2010); Sir Kenneth Cork, Cork on Cork (Basingstoke, Hants: Macmillan, 1988); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Jeff Daniels, “DeLorean,” Autocar 18 October 1977, pp. 23-24; David E. Davis, Jr., “Road Test: Lotus Esprit: Rediscovering the back-roads berserker,” Car and Driver June 1977, pp. 72-81; “DeLorean: Cutting through the hype to discover an exciting GT car,” Road & Track December 1981, pp. 46-50; “De Lorean’s aim: an Irish BMW,” Autocar 14 March 1981, p. 23; “DeLorean Sale Cleared,” The New York Times November 17, 1982; John DeLorean, “Vega 2300,” Motor Trend August 1970, pp. 30-32, 80; John S. DeMott, Bonnie Angelo, and Peter Stoler, “Finished: De Lorean Incorporated,” TIME 1 November 1982, pp. 37-38; “Failed car maker DeLorean dies,” BBC News, 21 March 2005, news.bbc. co.uk, accessed 5 August 2010); William Flanagan, “The Dream Car of John De Lorean,” Esquire 19 June 1979, pp. 74-81; Robert Flowers, “The Women-and-Wheels Life of Johnny DeLorean,” For Men Only January 1969, pp. 32-33, 67-68; Richard Gadeselli, “DeLorean: the man who fell to earth,” Autocar & Motor 21 March 1990, pp. 46-51; Richard Gadeselli, “DeLorean: Living the Dream,” Performance Car January 1984, pp. 43-47; PJ Grady, “Mike Loasby” and “William T. Collins,” PJ Grady Europe, n.d., www.pjgrady. co.uk, accessed 29 July 2010; Larry Griffin, “De Lorean versus the World,” Car and Driver, December 1981, pp. 39-47, reprinted in Car and Driver on Datsun Z, 1600& 2000 1966-84 (Brooklands Books), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1986), pp. 77-83; William Haddad, Hard Driving: My Years with John DeLorean (New York: Random House, 1985); David Henry, “Everybody loves a bargain,” Forbes 17 November 1986; John Hilton, “The Decline and Fall of the De Lorean Dream,” Car and Driver July 1982, pp. 63-70; Richard Hughes, “DeLorean: Belfast’s Concorde?” CAR February 1979, pp. 32-35; “John DeLorean Builds a Sports Car: The DMC-12,” Car and Driver July 1977, pp. 37-46; “John DeLorean’s DSV,” Road & Track December 1975, p. 72; “John DeLorean: US businessman whose plans for a futuristic car seduced the Government before failing spectacularly,” The Times 22 March 2005, www.timesonline. co.uk, accessed 25 July 2010); Lucy Kaylin, “Wings of Desire,” GQ September 2000, pp. 320-324; Mike Knepper, “I Remember John Z.,” Car and Driver June 1993, pp. 113-116; Mike Knepper, “Busted Dream: 1982 De Lorean,” Special Interest Autos #147 (May-June 1995), pp. 24-31; “Labour’s Arthur Andersen links,” BBC News, 30 January 2002, news.bbc. co.uk, accessed 10 August 2010); John Lamm, “Got a Spare $90 Million?” Road & Track July 1977, p. 44; Robert Lamm, “DeLorean Sports Car Chronology,” De Lorean: Stainless Steel Illusion (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks, International, 1983), p. 21; Ed Lapham, “DeLorean revisited: AutoWeek drives latest version of DMC-12 at Lotus” and “DeLorean ready for production,” AutoWeek 11 February 1980, pp. 8-9; and “Unraveled Dream,” AutoWeek 19 October 1982, pp. 25-31 Aaron Latham, “Anatomy of a Sting: John DeLorean tells his story,” Rolling Stone 17 March 1983, pp. 18-28; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1979 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1979); World Cars 1981 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1981); World Cars 1984 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1984); and World Cars 1985 (Pelham, NY: Herald Books, 1985); George D. Levy, “DeLorean Sports Car: John Z’s creation finally arrives,” AutoWeek 20 April 1981, pp. 12-13; Karl Ludvigsen, “Man on the Move: John DeLorean: He Made the Push Come to Chevy,” Signature November 1972, pp. 37-40; Ed Magnusson, Benjamin W. Cate, Steven Holmes, and Alessandra Stanley, “The Bottom Line: Busted,” TIME 1 November 1982, pp. 30-33; Charles McGrath, “He Pimped His Ride,” New York Times Style Magazine, 18 September 2005, www.nytimes. com, accessed 25 July 2010); J. Bruce McWilliams, “A Job for Jesus,” Car and Driver October 1982, pp. 95-98; “NIAO: Press Releases – DeLorean: The Recovery of Public Funds” and “DeLorean: The Recovery of Public Funds (Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, HC287),” Northern Ireland Audit Office, 12 February 2004, www.niauditoffice. gov.uk, accessed 10 August 2010; Jan P. Norbye and Jim Dunne, Pontiac 1946-1978: The Classic Postwar Years (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International Publishers & Wholesalers, 1979); Jane O’Reilly and Richard Woodbury, “The Stingers Get Stung,” TIME 27 August 1984, pp. 23-24; “People: Fred Bushell,” GP Encyclopedia, n.d., www.grandprix. com, accessed 25 July 2010; “Reading the Mail,” TIME, 19 October 1981, www.time. com, accessed 24 July 2010; Melody Petersen, “DeLorean Jury Rules Against Arthur Andersen,” New York Times 6 March 1998, www.nytimes. com, accessed 10 August 2010); Christopher Reed, “Obituary: John DeLorean,” The Guardian 21 March 2005, www.guardian. co.uk, accessed 25 July 2010; Robert Scheer, “Playboy Interview: John De Lorean,” Playboy October 1985, pp. 64-72, 134, 158; Michael S. Serrill and Russell Leavitt, “Law: The Case of the Purloined Tapes,” TIME 7 November 1983, p. 82; David C. Smith, “Launching a Car Company: Finances are the Hard Part,” Car and Driver Vol. 23, No. 1 (July 1977), p. 40; Mark Starr and Martin Kasindorf, “DeLorean: Not Guilty,” Newsweek 27 August 1984, pp. 22-24, and “Justice: De Lorean’s Day in Court,” Newsweek 12 March 1984, p. 85; Brian Stater, “Dark clouds taint Lotus founder Colin Chapman,” The Telegraph 14 December 2002, www.telegraph. co.uk, accessed 25 July 2010; John W. Styll, “Cristina Ferrare: In God I Trust,” Contemporary Christian Magazine April 1984, pp. 20-25; Tony Swan, “De Lorean: American assessment,” Autocar 13 June 1981, pp. 28-31; Tony Swan, “DeLorean: The American Dream is alive and fighting for survival in Northern Ireland,” Motor Trend May 1981, pp. 85-90; “The DeLorean Dilemma,” Car and Driver July 1981, pp. 64-70; “The DeLorean Saga,” Top Wheels: Exotic Sports & Classic Cars September 1993, pp. 62-66; “The sad tale of John DeLorean,” 23 March 2005, GP Encyclopedia, www.grandprix. com, accessed 25 July 2010; “Trials: The Fat Man’s Song,” TIME 18 June 1984, www.time. com, accessed 10 August 2010; Alan Walker, “The white light of Ulster,” CAR April 1981, pp. 46-49; Paul Wilner, “D-Day,” US 10 October 1983, pp. 62-63; J. Patrick Wright, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors: John Z. DeLorean’s Look Inside the Automotive Giant (Chicago, IL: Avon Books, 1980); and Brock Yates, “New Kind of Wheel at GM,” Sports Illustrated 15 December 1969, sportsillustrated.cnn. com, accessed 25 July 2010. Many of these articles are indexed on Tamir Ardon’s DeLorean website, www.entermyworld. com.

Information about the DMC-12’s famous movie role came from “Back to the Future (1985),” Internet Movie Database, n.d., www.imdb. com, accessed 31 July 2010, and Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, commentary, Back to the Future, writers: Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, director: Robert Zemeckis, producers: Neil Canton and Bob Gale, United States: Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures, 1985; DVD, Universal Home Video, 2005.

Some additional details on the history of the PRV V6 came from Pertti-Tapio Mäkelä, “The Brief History of the Douvrin PRV V6 Engine” (n.d., The Douvrin PRV V6 Resource Centre, members.fortunecity. com/ douvrinprv/ id20.html, accessed 24 July 2010).

Information about the revived DeLorean Motor Company came from “Car News: New DeLorean – Back to the Past?” Car and Driver August 2007, www.caranddriver. com, accessed 31 July 2010; Marc Noordeloos, “Stephen Wynne, CEO of the DeLorean Motor Company – Q&A,” Automobile February 2009, www.automobilemag. com, accessed 25 July 2010; Robert S. Rodgers, “The New DeLorean Sportscar,” DeLoreanMotorcar.com, 2008, www.deloreanmotorcar. com, accessed 25 July 2010); and Mosi Secret, “DeLorean Lives On,” Houston Press 31 March 2005, www.houstonpress. com, accessed 25 July 2010.

Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound came from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 British Pound, 1948-2007” (2007, fx.sauder.ubc. ca, accessed 2 January 2010). Please note that the dollar/sterling equivalencies presented in the article are approximate, intended for the reader’s general reference. This is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the history of international exchange rates!


34 Comments

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  1. I know you would use the word “cocaine” in the first line! Ha ha!

  2. I understand that while the Mercedes 300-SL had gull-wing doors for legitimate engineering reasons, on the DeLorean (and Bricklin) they were pretty much for the sake of cachet.

    Both the latter cars were pitched as being safe, but I wouldn’t want to be in an overturned car with gull-wing doors.

    DeLorean’s hair and sideburns don’t look that outrageous today, but the photo is ~40 years old, and GM was a conservative company.

    1. Believe me you wouldn’t want to be in any car upside down, On the Delorean, the top structure was strong, So it would be be a matter of kicking ore breaking out the big window, and being pulled to safety, or crawl to safety, far far safer than any American convertible

      1. I have no doubt that the DMC-12 had better rollover protection than a convertible. Rollover accidents are relatively infrequent, compared to other types of accidents, and with a car with as low a center of gravity as the DeLorean, it would probably take some effort to actually end up on the roof.

    2. The GM Media Archives photo was an official portrait (I don’t know its original date; GMMA did not specify), so DeLorean may have opted for a more conservative haircut specifically for that photo shoot — it looks less shaggy than in other contemporary photos of him. By the general standards of early-seventies coiffure, it was hardly outrageous, but it was notably shaggier than I suspect was customary for senior GM executives.

      DeLorean told [i]Car and Driver[/i] in 1977 that one of the purposes of the gullwing doors was to allow a much higher sill than would have been practical with conventional doors, allowing better side-impact protection. Mercedes adopted them because the sills of the 300SL’s frame were so high that conventional doors would have basically necessitated stuffing the driver through a tiny slot, and hinging the doors at the roof was simpler than redesigning the frame. Both were legitimate enough engineering goals, although in DeLorean’s case, it’s reasonable to assume showmanship was also a factor.

      The DeLorean’s doors were at least more reliable than the Bricklin’s, which were power-operated. Bill Collins said in 2008 that they deliberately avoided power assistance to keep occupants from being trapped with the engine off, although when the hydraulic struts where out, keeping the doors open is a pain, just as it is on an old hatchback. (In their [i]Back to the Future[/i] commentary, Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis said that was a persistent problem with the movie car, especially in cold weather.)

      1. The Delorean Doors were counter balanced by a torsion bar, the hydraulic struts were just to make the doors move more smoothly to simulate electric doors, and to cushion the beginning and end of their movement. The struts could be totally removed and the torsion bar could be used to lift small children off the ground. Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis were not mechanics or engineers, I could have totally fixed that ‘problem’ in less than 20 minutes for both (not each) doors.

        1. I’m sure that Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale would be the first to admit that they’re not mechanics, and they do acknowledge in the same commentary track that movie cars tend to be “cursed” — suffering mysterious infirmities and generally not performing as desired.

          In the [i]Back to the Future[/i] commentary track, they said that during cold night shooting, the doors would slowly flop down between takes, and that the prop guys would have to heat the hydraulic struts (with a hair dryer, if memory serves) to keep them pressurized. What ailments the film car’s doors may have suffered, I don’t know, but having owned several hatchback cars with failing hydraulic struts, my assumption was that worn struts were to blame; that was my diagnosis, not Gale’s and Zemeckis’, and if it’s wrong, the error is mine, not theirs.

        2. Don’t be fooled by that cryogenical torsion bar. The torsion bar helped with the doors being counterbalanced as you stated. I owned a Delorean for five years. These doors are HEAVY and provide stability to the structure when closed, (Like a targa top on a corvette does when in place) Those Hydraulic struts greatly assist in lifting the door and keeping it in an open position. The torsion bar makes it possible to open the door with the struts otherwise it would be extremely difficult to open these heavy doors.

  3. This may be your best post yet. I thought I knew the story, but you dug much deeper than any account I’d read up until now. Keep up the great work!

  4. As a technician in San Luis Obispo Ca. in the 80s and 90s, I spent a lot of my career working on Volvos, including the (in)famous PRV V6 models. Through patience and dogged persverance, I wrongly or rightly developed a local reputation of being able to make them run as they were more or less intended. This reputation led to several local DeLorean owners seeking out my help when there versions of that “ahem” POS began to give them grief. The well known laundry list of maladies plaguing the PRV is too long to go into here so I wont even attempt it. I did, however, have the opportunity to work on and drive one example that had been massaged with a pair of Garrett turbos at one point. Having experienced the stock models on many occasions, the turbo version was a welcome change. While not neck snapping by any means, it probably would have been what John Z. was looking for all along. Low rpm performance was virtually unchanged from the stock model, but the fun really began at about 3000. From there to the redline (about 5500 as I recall, but it could have been more)it would really press you back into the seat, giving the impression of the kind of performance one would expect for the price and sporting pretentions associated with it.
    Beyond that though, it was still just… a Delorean. All the problems mentioned in your article were still there. The doors, the outward visibility. (Seating position was so low, you could not see the hood or the front corners of the car. Sort of like looking out the view slot of a tank battened down for combat.) Rear visibility was even worse. The 5 speed shift linkage was heavy and sluggish, and the unassisted steering was slow and heavy, in spite of the lightly loaded front wheels. Another feature not mentioned in your article (although visible in the photos) was the “toll booth window”. Because of the extreme tumblehome of the door glazing, roll down windows were an impossibility. To allow at least some access through them, they were fitted with small access “window within a window” glazings that could be lowered to allow one to drop coins into toll booth baskets. They were pretty much useless for anything else. The aforementioned tumblehome of the side glass, in conjunction with the dramatic rake of the windshield meant that the cabin became a solar oven anytime the sun was out. This meant that one pretty much had to run the A/C all the time as there were no windows to roll down. This served to sap away another 5-7 HP from the already anemic engine. I could go on but the rest of the problems have all been well documented by your story and elsewhere.
    Sadly, the entire debacle was the product of a grossly inflated ego, however passionate JZD may have been.

    Thanks again for another great article.
    Joe Dunlap

    1. One of the sources I read was an article by David Freeman in [i]AutoWeek[/i] (5/17/82) about a turbo installation by Mike di Gonis of MD Engineering. It was an aftermarket thing, but it seemed like a reasonably good comparison for a production DMC-12 turbo. It was moderately boosted — perhaps 8.5 psi (0.59 bars) — and di Gonis claimed a power increase of 30% (i.e., about 40 hp). It was not a blazingly fast car, but [i]AutoWeek[/i] found it cut more than a second off the 0-60 mph times, and it was much stronger in the midrange. That sounds similar to the one you drove.

      Sadly, the poor outward visibility is all too common in modern cars. The last time I went to the L.A. Auto Show, I was dismayed to find that there were very few modern cars in which I could see any of the fenders from the driver’s seat. Having been spoiled by the low cowls of cars like eighties Hondas, I am waiting eagerly for the trend to go back the other way…

    2. The rotary engine is still the best HP(horsepower for all you brainiacs) per lb, smooth running engine. GM and Japanese finally resolved the seal problem, GM thumbed their nose at Delorean for wanting to use their wankel engine seal design, because of bad blood from JZD’s expose book of the inner working of GM in his book, On a Clear Dat,etc. If JZD had been half the ‘engineer he was purported to be, he would have added a supercharger, and gone for performance instead of economy in a new expensive $1.60/gal world. karma!!

      1. Seal integrity and horsepower/pound (or horsepower per liter) are not the only measures of engine efficiency. The reason rotary engines are not more common is that despite their excellent specific output, they have lower thermal efficiency than a good Otto-cycle engine, which is reflected in high specific fuel consumption and higher levels of some exhaust emissions. Even the current Mazda Renesis is very thirsty, both for gasoline and for oil.

        As the article states, DeLorean hoped to launch a twin-turbo version, but it was not the first priority. I believe the reason for the concern with fuel economy was CAFE. DeLorean Motor Company didn’t have other models to balance a thirsty sports car, and its financial situation was precarious enough that CAFE fines would have been a problem; if they’d had deeper pockets, they could have simply paid them and passed the cost on to customers, but I’m not sure they could have afforded that at the outset.

  5. Perhaps only a few people know John owned a mercedes gullwing. He owned a few exotic cars.
    The italian cars of the day were beautiful but not always reliable. The German cars were rock solid but not always beautiful. At the time there was one car in the world that was both.

    The Mercedes c111 concept car was breaking world records and wowing people in automotive shows around the planet. The idea of an aerodynamically stable triple digit vehicle was far reaching for the times. When mercedes canceled the project the italdesign company cropped the front and that was the beginning of the dmc12. Although the gull wing doors were a great gimmic to sell the car, the reality is they were in the design because the original design was a replacement for the 300sl. When the c111 project was scrapped there were people all over the planet that had written them blank checks to try to get them to produce it in some fashion. John may have even been one of those people. At the very least he would have been keenly interested in the mercedes development. There is no way John would have missed out on such a gold mine.
    If Johns version had been produced as he had intended instead of re designed out from under him it would have been a rocket just like its German predecessor. The DMC was never designed with a dogbone frame,clunky fiberglass/plastic moldings,and that damned over engineered frenchified prv engine. Those were all forced on Delorean by outside factors he could not controll. As a business man he wasn’t great but as an engineer he was. The theory was sound. Even in its asthmatic form the giugiaro design gives inklings of greatness. The mercedes fuel injection system is solid and reliable. The interior is part porsche part lancia, comfortable for a 6 footer like me.

    In THEORY the practical Germans and the passionate Italians should have made for the greatest car the world would ever see. Fitted with correct suspension, and better engine….and the car does handle deceptively well.

    The irony is the car ended up like the bismark.
    Percieved as the greatest of its time, feared by its competition, sunk by the british, captivating subject of discussion for the rest of time.

    1. The DMC-12 does have a certain general resemblance to the second C111, although other than the gullwing doors, it also bears a broad resemblance to various other mid-engine cars of the period (including Giugiaro’s own Maserati designs). It’s hard to imagine that either Giugiaro or DeLorean was unaware of the C111, which, as you note, was big news at the time. I don’t know of either acknowledging the relationship, but it’s not implausible.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if DeLorean had tried to get a C111. Interestingly, he did say that at one point that he tried to get GM to sell him the prototypes of the abortive mid-engine Corvette, but they wouldn’t bite.

      It’s true that the PRV was not the originally planned engine. As best as I could determine, the earliest plans involved the Comotor 624 rotary, based on the one in the Citroën GS Birotor and related to the one in the NSU Ro80. (Perhaps Bill Collins will chime in on this point.) The two-rotor Wankel would not have been any more powerful than the PRV — the 995 cc engine made 115 hp in the Ro80, 105 hp in the GS Birotor — and it would not have been nearly as reliable. On the other hand, it would have weighed less; even with only 115 hp, a 2,200-lb DMC-12 would have had a somewhat better power-to-weight ratio than the production car.

      While the production DMC-12 is quite a bit different than even the 1976 prototype, and that it was not really the car DeLorean originally envisioned, it seems a stretch to say those changes were imposed upon him. He chose the PRV V6 because it was the best deal available for an off-the-shelf engine; from what he told [i]Car and Driver[/i] in 1977, the leading alternative at that point was Ford’s Cologne V6, but Renault had excess capacity, and was more amenable to a deal. DeLorean also commissioned Lotus to do the production reengineering; that was not imposed on him by others, either. Unlike at GM, DeLorean was the final arbiter of those decisions.

      While the VARI fiberglass/steel backbone structure had its limitations, the original plan would also have been fiberglass, albeit not the same kind. The ERM process DeLorean originally planned to use was basically a core of urethane, impregnated with resin, layered with fiberglass and then compressed to about a tenth of its original thickness. It was a very new technology, and it’s an open question whether a two-piece ERM structure (with a steel front suspension crossmember and steel powertrain cradle) would have been strong enough and rigid enough. The main reason Lotus opted for the Esprit-style backbone is that they had tried the all-plastic monocoque on the original Elite, with very mixed results. ERM was an ambitious idea, and it might eventually have worked great, but working out the bugs would have been a daunting task, particularly with DMC’s resources. The old cliche about champagne tastes and a beer budget seems to apply…

      1. May be if you were taller than 5ft 1, you could see better. Get a VW cc, sorry bro, but a Delorean in a handicapped parking place at least won’t get door dinged by idiots…….

  6. Thank you for this in depth article on the Delorean saga. I’m a member of the Delorean Club of Fl and have driven 3 Deloreans so far. I drove 2 5 speeds and a auto. The 5 speed is the quicker of the 2, although the auto has it’s good merits as well. Deloreans aren’t super fast, but they are fun to drive. I had no problem with the visibility myself. Backing out you have to pay attention close. I heard soo many negative things about these cars from critics. I got in it and drove it and was very impressed.

    1. It must be said that very few mid-engine coupes do particularly well in rear visibility. I don’t know that the DeLorean is any better than its mid-engine contemporaries, but it probably isn’t any worse, either.

    2. The DMC made the Bricklin seem like a kit car, had JZD been a good person, he would have stayed with Bill Collins, but JZD was enamored with Collin Chapman,of lotus fame, and was willing to cast the the genius in his life (Bill Collins) that made him great to the curb, what an egomaniac loser…Karma sucks sometimes…….

  7. [quote=Administrator]The DeLorean’s doors were at least more reliable than the Bricklin’s, which were power-operated. Bill Collins said in 2008 that they deliberately avoided power assistance to keep occupants from being trapped with the engine off[/quote]

    I’d think that if the car went greasy side up, its weight would hold the doors shut whether they were power-operated or not.

    1. Two different issues. If I interpret Bill Collins’ remark correctly, he wasn’t referring to rollover safety, but rather the possibility of the power mechanism failing and keeping the doors from opening, even with the car right side up. (I’m not that familiar with the Bricklin SV1, so I don’t know what kind of backup mechanism was provided, if any, but the electro-hydraulic mechanism on the production cars was very troublesome.) With the DMC-12, a worn or failed hydraulic strut would keep the doors from [i]staying[/i] open, but it wouldn’t [i]keep[/i] them from opening.

      Of course, that doesn’t help if the car is on its roof, but for a low-slung, limited-production sports car, a mechanical or electrical failure (whether resulting from an accident or not) might well be more likely than a rollover accident.

  8. The Petersen Museum has one of the three American Express 24 karat gold plated cars in their collection. It’s on display currently with a Mercedes McLaren SLR and a Bugatti EB110

  9. I showed my Delorean in the Hillsboro concours d elegance, next to a ferrari testarosa, and a lamborghinni countach, people ignoned the farrari, and the crowd was almost equal for the Delorean and the Lambo,sounds stupid but it was true. Just a door for a Ferrari costs more than the whole Delorean did, a beefier suspension on the DMC and a Ford indy engine, with a supercharger would have made it a success in spite of JZD………..why is this all so obvious to me??????

  10. just look at the cars you’re comparing it with, where’s the lotus esprit, Jaguar XKE, both still more expensive than the ill fated Delorean, comparing it to a Bugatti, you could have bought all 7500 Deloreans for about the price of a Bugatti.

    1. The article does not compare the DMC-12 with Bugatti. The commentator was just pointing out the space where one of the gold cars is on display; the Bugatti Veyron and Mercedes SLR next to which the Petersen has parked it were not even conceived when the DMC-12 was launched.

      The article makes the comparison with the Corvette, the Porsche 911SC, and the Lotus Esprit. The 911SC was a little more expensive than the DeLorean, the Esprit a lot more expensive. The Jaguar E-Type was long gone by then, but the XJ-S (which was roughly $5,000 more than the DMC-12) is not an unreasonable comparison. The XJ-S was not pitched as a sports car, of course, although it was faster than the DeLorean, and would probably have appealed to a similar clientele.

  11. I’ve driven more than 50 Deloreans, I drove 15 brand new ones at the dealer in Palo Alto,CA to pick the best one, to buy, each one drove slightly different, thank Collin Chapman, and unskilled Irish labor, and a guy with too much ego to properly take care of business…….The automatics were crap……

  12. It was an early 1020 HARLEY EARL hand pounded aluminum design, from Don Lee Cadillac in movie center, LA. I also hand the original cancelled check from a woman buyer in Oakland CA, for $7,100. in 1920, it even had roll up windows, try to find another 1920 car with roll up windows, this was one of two remaining Harley Earl designs, in the world. Cadillac hired Harley Earl from Don Lee in 1926. Harley was the design guru at GM, thru the fins of the 50’s,up through the sting ray corvette…….

  13. In the book Corvette From The Inside by Dave McLellan he mentions a supercomputer crash simulation of the Delorean prototype. The results show the first design was extremely bad. I saw an interview somewhere with I think Bricklin where he said something about Delorean poaching his engineers and design for the original Delorean prototype. Funny how it all ties together.

  14. Little or nothing is mentioned of the six Alpine A310’s ordered by DeLorean to evaluate the rear-mounted PRV V6. My car was fitted (by DeLorean engineers) with the 2849cc Volvo-derived version of the engine, along with its fuel injection. The car is very quick as there is no emissions equipment on it and so all of its almost 190hp is available to exploit.

    Whilst I appreciate that my car holds no real interest for DeLorean owners, it is however part of the DeLorean history. This summer the car will be for sale, along with its comprehensive history file and authentication of Northern Ireland registration by the DVLNI (Northern Ireland). Take a look at the car on my website (it’s the blue car) at: http://www.a310alpine.com

  15. [quote=pcintex]I saw an interview somewhere with I think Bricklin where he said something about Delorean poaching his engineers and design for the original Delorean prototype. Funny how it all ties together.[/quote]

    Bricklin’s assertion was made in an interview that is excerpted here: In the 2008 DMCTalk interview/chat cited in the sources for this article, Bill Collins said he didn’t know one way or the other if DeLorean had had any business dealings with Bricklin, but he strenuously denied Bricklin’s claim that the DMC-12 prototype was copied from the SV-1.

  16. The Bricklin SV-1(safety vehicle) has a Hatch with the cabled release right next to the Drivers hand..it also has MANUAL roll down windows..and a Truck like heavy duty Birdcage style Roll cage…also the Mercedes 300SL and the bricklin SV-1 NEEDED the gullwing doors as the Bricklin Has a Massive Square tubing Frame..running along the side of the car,giving it a rather high belt-line..with No room to put regular Doors..ie: if a conventional door were put on a bricklin..unless you are under four feet tall,you just could not get into a Bricklin.

  17. The PRV V6 was a great sportscar engine when fitted in a proper sportscar, viz the Alpine A310, Alpine GTA(in NA or turbo format) the Alpine A610, and the Venturi. It was a successful engine in family cars for all three of the collaborators in the European market: maybe the federalized version gained a bad reputation but I don’t know

    1. Its reputation here is really quite dismal, both in terms of repair records and in terms of power and general demeanor. It didn’t cover itself in glory in the Volvo 260 series, certainly.

  18. I can attest to the engines dismal reliability. The shop I worked at in the 1980’s was called upon to fix timing chains, worn camshafts, bad head gaskets, and other maladies on Volvo, Renault and Peugeot cars with this engine. Most often we gave a quote and the owners scrapped the car…..

    Roger.

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