Great Scott! The car that made time travel stylish is back from the dead
Updated 29th January 2016
Great Scott! The car that made time travel stylish is back from the dead
When Doc Brown reveals his time-traveling car at the beginning of the first "Back to the Future" movie, Marty McFly reacts by asking, "Are you telling me you built a time machine ... out of a DeLorean!?"
The incredulous response -- intended to suggest that it's difficult to know which is harder to believe, a time machine or something actually fashioned out of a DeLorean -- would probably have mirrored the reaction of moviegoers at the time of the film's release in 1985.
Now, Back to the Future fans will have another chance to purchase the famous car -- for the hefty, projected price of $100,000.
In 2017, the Texas-based DeLorean Motor Co., (not related to the original manufacturer), will build new cars from unused spare parts, sourced from the original DeLorean plant. The production of the cars will resume for the first time in three decades.
As "Back to the Future" co-writer and producer Bob Gale explains, the DeLorean was an unconventional choice for a film's starring car, even by Hollywood standards.
"When we were working on the movie, the company's founder, John DeLorean, was on trial for cocaine trafficking -- he was in the news pretty much every day -- and then, of course, his company went bust.
"But to us, there was something dangerous, something counterculture, something so very gorgeous about just how beautiful that car was. And we loved those gull-wing doors."
The 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 would be the only automobile ever to be built by the DeLorean Motor Co.
Manufactured in a suburb of Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and primarily for the American market, only 9,000 were made before production ceased in 1982. Of these, an estimated 6,000 remain.
DeLoreans out for a spin
Chris Parnham, author of the book "Delorean: Celebrating the Impossible," considers the movie to be a key reason behind the car's enduring popularity.
"Unlike, say, a really expensive Ferrari or Lamborghini, with the DeLorean, people don't get jealous. They won't take out their keys and scratch it. People, especially young people, have really fond memories of it from 'Back to the Future.' "
Parnham, who is also a member of the DeLorean Owners Club UK (DOC), has owned and recommissioned 18 DeLoreans since buying one in 1999. He offers them to members at cost price and currently owns two.
"I can't pretend I'm a shrinking violet," he said with a laugh of the crowds that usually form around his sleek low-silhouette ride. "I enjoy the attention."
Not content with simply owning a DeLorean, some, such as 51-year-old Japanese entrepreneur Michihiko Iwamoto, have taken it to the next level.
On Back to the Future day this past October -- October 21, 2015 was the date to which Marty and Doc travel 30 years forward in time in the film's sequel -- Iwamoto spent the day driving his time-machine replica in a parking lot in Tokyo,
There, he demonstrated how his very own Doc Brown-inspired "Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor" runs on bioethanol made from recycled clothes.
"I love it," Iwamoto said. "When I sit in the driver's seat and hold the steering wheel, I feel transported back to my youth."
The time machine was almost a refrigerator
That the DeLorean has become such a cult status symbol was in fact something of a fluke. According to Gale, the original script saw Marty travel through time in a refrigerator.
"In 1981, the first two drafts had the time machine as a stationery device that Doc had in his lab. He then would put it on his pickup truck and drive it around," Gale explained.
"In 1984, when we finally got the movie off the ground, in pre-production, the director Bob Zemeckis asked, 'how am I going to shoot this?' There were a lot of logistics (with the refrigerator). He thought it would be better if the machine was more mobile, or in a car. That's when he hit upon the idea of the DeLorean."
Yet, it's tempting to think, that given the rock 'n' roll life of its creator, the car was always destined for the limelight, with or without "Back to the Future."
The man behind the machine
John DeLorean, who died in 2005, made his career as an engineer at General Motors, designing American classics like the Pontiac GTO muscle car and the Pontiac Firebird.
In 1973, he left GM to start the DeLorean Motor Co. and to build his dream sports car.
Startup costs were steep: Estimates put hefty investment at $200 million.
DeLorean, who -- as DOC club historian Parnham puts it -- was "a spin doctor, before they even invented the word," managed to get high-profile investors like American television host Johnny Carson on board.
The largest portion was from the British government, which was desperate to create jobs in Northern Ireland as part of an effort to subdue sectarian violence. It fronted $120 million.
But it would never see return on its investment.
Changes required to the engine and the design of the car were some of the key factors that delayed production, and units wouldn't roll off the assembly line until 1981.
When they finally did, sales were a disappointment.
Cars were expensive. Priced at $27,500 in 1982, it would cost in the mid-$70,000s by today's standards, after inflation.
Besides the price point, Parnham attributes low sales to two other key factors: "In 1982, America was in the middle of a recession, and it was the worst winter ever. Nothing was selling."
While other startups may have weathered the storm, DeLorean's penchant for beautiful women, late-night parties and nefarious business dealings outside the factory were coming under heavy media scrutiny, particularly when the designer was caught with a briefcase full of cocaine.
He was charged with trafficking $24 million worth of illegal drugs, but after a lengthy and highly publicized trial, he was found not guilty.
Despite the verdict, the damage had been done. As DeLorean himself famously quipped, "Would you by a used car from me?"
The factory ran out of money; the company went into receivership. After only 12 months in production, the entire venture collapsed in 1982.
As Parnham laments, "Back to the Future wouldn't come for another 18 months. The publicity might have saved the car."
Keeping the dream alive
Stephen Wynne is CEO of the Houston-based DeLorean Motor Co. The company, which has no ties to the original DeLorean Motor Co. set up by John DeLorean, specializes in the service, restoration and sales of DeLorean cars and parts.
Wynne, who worked as a mechanic fixing the DeLoreans in 1982, admires its "timeless" design -- particularly the stainless steel exterior and the famous gull-wing doors.
"If you sort of roll the clock back to the early '80s, the automotive environment was quite boring. Regulations were changing in the U.S. for safety and emissions. People didn't know what would be legal anymore," Wynne said.
"For John DeLorean to think of doing such a unique car, something so adventurous, was a big risk. The DeLorean was the Tesla of today. It was breaking all the rules."
Gale, who refers to DeLorean as the "textbook bad boy of car design," agrees: "One of the nicest fan letters (the filmmakers) ever received was from John DeLorean. He wrote a letter that said simply, 'thank you for keeping my dream alive.' "