How the DeLorean (Almost) Came Back From the Dead

Pauls Imaging Photography, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pauls Imaging Photography, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0 / Pauls Imaging Photography, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

By the time Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had started work on their fourth draft of Back to the Future in the summer of 1984, John DeLorean had been buried, revived, and born again. The 59-year-old automaker had just been acquitted of federal drug trafficking charges related to an alleged attempt to transport 55 pounds of cocaine in order to help keep his DeLorean Motor Company afloat.

He emerged from seclusion a religious man, as well as an entrepreneurial cautionary tale. In his attempt to remake the automotive industry, DeLorean’s gull-winged DMC-12, which he boasted would become a ubiquitous fixture on the road, wound up selling a disappointing 6,000 units through 1982. It was roughly half of what he needed to break even.

To the “Bobs,” however, the entire saga was fascinating.

Gale and Zemeckis had previously thought of transporting Marty McFly, Back to the Future's jittery hero, back through time in a chamber stuffed into the back of a pick-up truck. One draft had Marty and co-conspirator Doc Brown using a discarded refrigerator, an idea executive producer Steven Spielberg would later adopt for an Indiana Jones sequel in 2008. But Zemeckis and Spielberg were said to have been unnerved by the idea that kids might want to role-play as Marty and find themselves suffocating in a giant appliance.

The Bobs also wanted to beef up a gag in the film where McFly encounters a rural family in 1955 and gets mistaken for an alien visitor—it would be better, they thought, if his time machine looked futuristic. Out went the pick-up, in came the DMC-12.

The rest of Future is history. The film became a gigantic hit, spawned two sequels, and made a star out of the DeLorean. But it wasn’t the first time a cult following had developed around the vehicle. Nor did the film's success escape the attention of DeLorean himself, who thought a two-hour commercial for his car might be exactly what he needed to get him back in the driver’s seat.

Boston University

DeLorean was a vice-president for General Motors and in line for a promotion when he decided to resign in 1973. The company, he said, was at odds with his desire to create a compact, affordable sports car. Two years later, he announced the formation of DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) and promised to galvanize the auto industry with a daring new design.

The DMC-12, with its pointed, stainless-steel chassis, would reflect the polished DeLorean’s sensibilities. Often doting on his appearance (he was reputed to have gotten a prominent chin implant) and best known for bringing the Pontiac GTO to market, he wasn't a station wagon sort of guy.

Developing an automobile alter ego, however, was glacial. A prototype was ready by 1976, but DeLorean didn’t have a factory until 1978, when the British government poured $120 million into DMC. They wanted him to set up shop in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, as a way of creating labor opportunities for the highly politicized country. (The area’s economy was so depressed that locals pleaded with Irish terrorists not to incite violence—jobs were needed.)

No one was shot, but engineering troubles kept the DMC-12 on ice until 1981, when the factory finally began producing 18 vehicles a day. The price was $25,000, or more than double what DeLorean had originally announced. (The "12" in the model name was a reference to the intended retail price of $12,000.) DeLorean had also convinced dealerships around the country to invest $25,000 in exchange for becoming shareholders in the company. Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. sunk money into the business. The ad campaign emphasized the idea the DMC-12 was a luxury vehicle—buyers should "live the dream."

Despite Carson’s endorsement, the car was not a hit. While strikingly different from anything on the highways, not everyone enjoyed its 45-inch profile or the distinctive doors, which made the vehicle resemble a gliding seagull while open. Promotional tactics like offering a gold-plated model to American Express customers went largely ignored. (At $85,000, just four were sold.) And despite costing more than a Porsche, the DMC-12 was remarkably frail: windows stuck, dye seeped from the floor mats, and the malfunctioning doors sometimes trapped passengers inside the cabin.

DeLorean had a goal to sell 11,000 cars in 1981; 20,000 in 1982; and 30,000 in 1983. By the middle of 1982, just over 4,000 had been delivered to dealers. Another 4,000 sat in inventory. The DMC-12 was officially a disaster.

Flailing, DeLorean tried to petition the British government for more money. They declined, unless a matching investor was found. By the end of 1982, a desperate DeLorean was in a hotel room trying to broker $24 million worth of cocaine, oblivious to the fact he was dealing with FBI agents. He was charged with conspiracy to smuggle narcotics into the United States.

Professionally, it was the worst thing imaginable. It was also a strong argument in favor of any publicity being good publicity. The DeLorean, which had been idling in warehouses and dealer lots, suddenly became a collector’s item, with buyers rushing to pay full sticker price for remaining inventory. DeLorean’s scandal had given the car a weirdly appealing story. By the time Zemeckis and Gale were finished, it would graduate into a cultural phenomenon.

DMC & Me

Back to the Future spent almost three months at the top of the box office in the summer and fall of 1985. The filmmakers received a handwritten note from DeLorean thanking them for helping revitalize interest in the vehicle. That fall, DeLorean—who was acquitted in 1984—released an autobiography and began speaking to the press. By no means, he said, was the DMC-12 finished.

The unused parts were shipped from the now-closed Northern Ireland factory to Columbus, Ohio, where DeLorean intended to erect a new assembly line for an updated version of the car. Unlike the DMC-12, which topped out at 125 miles per hour, the new model would go up to 175—perhaps even 200, depending on which reporter he was speaking to. DeLorean was also finished trying to corral costs. The new sports car would retail for as much as $75,000 and appeal to a discerning, well-heeled consumer. He even planned to drag Ireland's Galway Bay to retrieve the body dies (molds) for the vehicle that had been thrown into the water after the company collapsed.

Industry observers were not impressed. While he had beaten the first round of federal charges, DeLorean was still being pursued for fresh accusations of defrauding prior investors. When talk turned to how he would acquire financing for the updated DMC-12, DeLorean refused to offer specifics.

"I think it would be more fun to just go out and throw your money off the Brooklyn Bridge," one industry analyst told TIME in 1985.

When DeLorean beat the new charges in 1986, he again told media he had ambitious plans to target the "exotic" sports car market. Money had already been raised, he said. Motor Trend speculated British creditors would take issue with any projects relating to the DMC-12 without getting their share.

Still, DeLorean never stopped promising something would materialize. He patented a monorail system in 1994. Plans for a DMC-2 surfaced in 1996, which would feature the familiar gull-wing doors at a more reasonable $30,000 price point. DeLorean even sold premium stainless-steel wristwatches for $3,500 that entitled buyers to early-bird status when the car was ready to roll out. Two weeks before his death in March 2005, an 80-year-old DeLorean told an auto blogger he hadn’t yet given up on his goal to unveil a new vehicle bearing his name.

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Whether DeLorean necessarily had the ability to market a car using the DMC, DeLorean, or other affiliated trademarks might be open to interpretation. In 1994, DMC enthusiast and auto mechanic Stephen Wynne asserted himself as owner of the DeLorean Motor Company after buying the rights and leftover materials for an undisclosed sum he described only as no "chump change." Wynne shipped over all remaining parts for the car on 80 semi-trucks at a cost of $250,000 and set up shop in Houston, Texas. He told the Gainesville Sun that DeLorean had wished him luck in the new venture.

The revived DMC ships parts to mechanics and collectors. They also offer newly-constructed DMC-12s using old inventory supplies starting at $65,500. In 2014, Wynne estimated he sold roughly six new DMC-12s every year.

That same year, DeLorean’s widow, Sally DeLorean, filed a lawsuit claiming Wynne was "illegally" using the trademarks and that he had never actually purchased the name. According to the Houston Chronicle, a settlement was almost reached this past summer, but lawyers argued themselves into a standstill. The case is ongoing.

The DeLorean remains the focus of a thriving subculture, with collectors spending thousands on restoring and maintaining the estimated 6,500 remaining original models. They’re careful to seek out models with gas caps on the outside and not later designs that put it under the hood. Drivers out on the road usually expect to get stares and screaming mentions of "1.21 gigawatts" or "88 miles per hour." While it isn’t exactly the future DeLorean had in mind, he did manage to create one of the most recognizable vehicles in the history of the industry.

One of the dealers who invested $25,000 in DMC before the crash was once asked why he had bet so large on the man. "Anything that DeLorean will do," he said, "will be a success."

Additional Sources:
We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy.