Historic Car Brands
The DMC DeLorean was a rear-engined, two-door, two-seater sports car manufactured in Ireland and marketed by the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) for the American market from 1981 to 1983. It was the only car produced by DMC.
The story of the ill-fated De Lorean DMC-12 car project is as much about the company’s founder as it is about the car. John Zachary DeLorean (Gotfryd pic at right) was an American engineer, inventor and executive in the US automobile industry, best known for his work at General Motors.
DeLorean managed the development of a number of vehicles throughout his career, including the Pontiac GTO muscle car, the Pontiac Firebird, Pontiac Grand Prix and the Chevrolet Cosworth Vega.
He was the youngest division head in General Motors’ history but, while being an undoubted styling, packaging and engineering genius, had his enthusiasm tempered somewhat by the GM structure. He chafed under that control and left GM in 1973, to found the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) and build his dream car.
The concept was ambitious, to say the least: a Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed, mid-rotary-engined machine with a composite chassis and paint-free stainless steel exterior panels. DeLorean secured the rights to the Elastic Reservoir Molding (ERV) process, which he calculated would make the car lighter and stiffer than the competition.
The automotively-unproved ERM system involved compressing two 12mm layers of open-cell, plastic foam together, with a layer of resin between. By the time the foam sandwich was compressed to just 4mm thickness it became a very light, strong and stiff panel that promised to be better than fibreglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) and easier to produce.
It wasn’t, because of complex tooling needed for compound shapes. So, the ERM chassis was a no-go. (However, the number-plate surrounds on production vehicles were made on the ERM machinery.)
On top of that, the Comotor (NSU-Citroen) Wankel engine joint venture was abandoned by both makers in 1974, following the 1973 oil crisis that saw car makers scrambling for economy engines. Powerful as the rotary was, it wasn’t fuel-frugal and the collapse of Comotor left the DMC-12 without compact, lightweight mid-engine propulsion.
At that point, where the chassis and powerplant were no longer available, an auto maker like GM would have pulled the pin and instructed DeLorean to return to the drawing board. Without any such restraint, DeLorean pressed on, fatally compromising the DMC-12 project in the process.
DeLorean turned to Lotus’ Colin Chapman for a solution. Unsurprisingly, Lotus designed a steel backbone chassis, a la Elan, with front and rear forks. The front forks held the radiator and suspension and the rear forks flared to accommodate what would have to be a rear-mounted, not mid-mounted, engine.
Lotus also came up with an FRP body, without gelcoat-quality finish, to which DeLorean’s beloved stainless steel outer panels could be attached. The body also incorporated the specified gull-wing side doors.
The ideal replacement engine would have been a lightweight, turbocharged four-cylinder, but that technology was in its production-engine infancy. De Lorean was forced to choose the lightest V6 he could find; selecting the fuel-injected,130hp, 2.9-litre Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) ZMJ-159 V6, with lightweight aluminium-alloy block and cylinder heads.
DeLorean PRV engine – E J Pacific
Of course, the body-chassis-powertrain redesign added weight over the original full-ERM monocoque with super-lightweight rotary power, so the pre-production vehicles tipped the scales at 1230kg.
DeLorean’s prototype was shown in 1976 and called the DeLorean Safety Vehicle (DSV). As development continued, the model was referred to as the DSV-12 and later the DMC-12, since DMC was targeting a list price of US$12,000 upon release. (The final release price was more than twice that figure.)
The manufacturing plant to build the new car was built in Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast in Northern Ireland, with substantial financial input from the Northern Ireland Development Agency, to the tune of Stg£100 million. The Dunmurry factory eventually turned out 8583 cars, during its 21 months’ operation.
DeLorean interior – SV1ambo
There was no sign of customer vehicles in the late 1970s, until a ‘teaser’ American Express catalogue advertisement for DMC-12s plated in 24-carat gold. According to the ad, only 100 were to be manufactured and sold for US$85,000. In total, only four were actually purchased.
Production delays meant the DeLorean did not reach the consumer market until January 1981, by which time the US car market had slumped considerably, due to the 1980 economic recession.
On top of that were lukewarm reviews from critics and the public, who generally felt the uniqueness of the DeLorean’s styling did not compensate for the higher price and lower horsepower, relative to other sport coupes on the market. For example, the Corvette’s L82 engine had nearly double the DMC-12’s output.
It was obvious that the DeLorean needed additional power, so DMC entered into a contract with Legend Industries, which had previous success turbocharging Fiat Spiders for Fiat USA.
Legend twin-turbo-intercooled engine – Chris Nicholson
Legend fitted single and twin turbos with intercoolers to four test DeLoreans and the final twin-turbo DeLorean was quicker than a Ferrari 308 or a Porsche 928. The twin-turbo DeLorean tested 0–60mph in 5.8 seconds and the 1⁄4 mile (402m) in 14.7 seconds.
John DeLorean ordered 5000 engines and DMC planned to offer a turbocharged engine as a $7500 option, but before any of the engines could be put into production, DMC had declared bankruptcy, which drove Legend Industries, as well as other suppliers, into bankruptcy.
By February 1982, more than half of the 7000 DeLoreans produced remained unsold and DMC was US$175 million in debt.
After going into receivership in February 1982, DMC produced another 2000 cars until late October. At that point – you can’t make up this stuff – DeLorean was charged with cocaine trafficking, after FBI informant James Hoffman solicited him as financier in a scheme to sell 25kg of cocaine, worth approximately US$24 million.
Hoffman had approached DeLorean, a man whom he barely knew and who had no prior criminal record, so DeLorean was able to defend himself, employing the procedural defence of police entrapment. The trial ended in a not-guilty verdict in August 1984.
Time-Machine DeLorean inducted into National Historic VehicleRegister – Godfrey-Morton photo
Somehow, dealers managed to sell all the completed stock and the marque might have sunk into relative obscurity, had it not been for the 1985 movie Back to the Future, in which a DeLorean DMC-12 became the Flux Capacitor equipped time machine that transported Marty McFly back to November 5th, 1955.
There was no such time machine for DeLorean, who died at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey, from a stroke, on March 19, 2005 at the age of 80. His ashes are interred at the White Chapel Cemetery, in Troy, Michigan, where his tombstone shows a depiction of his DeLorean sports car with the gull-wing doors open.
Check out this professional video, done by a long-term, UK-based DeLorean owner: