When people think of the DeLorean motor car, the image of a time travelling teenager and an eccentric mad professor springs to mind after the DMC-12 achieved iconic status when it featured as the time machine in the Back to the Future movie franchise.
The DMC-12 was the only car produced by the DeLorean Motor Company and even though it’s loved by huge numbers of motoring enthusiasts today for its exotic design and trademark gull wing doors, the car was a spectacular failure that caused the company to collapse before the first Back to the Future movie was ever made.
John DeLorean founded the DeLorean Motor Company in October 1975. He was a former GM executive who hit upon the idea of manufacturing an ethical sports car with an environmentally friendly, efficient engine. Despite the consternation of colleagues at GM, DeLorean proceeded with his plan and created the DMC-12 after sensationally leaving the company in 1973.
DMC was beset with problems upon commencement of the ambitious project before a single vehicle had left the production line – the fact that it was initially scheduled to be manufactured in Puerto Rico but ended up with Belfast as its manufacturing base at the height of the sectarian troubles, reveals the haphazard nature of the vehicle’s inception.
The company’s Northern Ireland manufacturing base was situated on the border between the republican Twinbrook and unionist Dunmurry areas, with the UK’s then Labour government being keen to stimulate the local economy and reduce unemployment in the province as a way of quelling the violence that had raged since the start of the 1970s.
Despite the high hopes that were placed on the DMC-12, a Northern Irish consulting firm only gave the company a 1 in 10 chance of succeeding.
A prototype of the DMC-12 was built in 1976 and despite full scale unit production being scheduled to commence in 1979, the first models didn’t roll off the production line until 1981.
It is generally accepted that some of the quality issues that beset early production models of the DMC-12 arose from the inexperience of the company’s workforce, with many having never had jobs before getting hired by The DeLorean Motor Company.
The car was plagued with accusations of not being powerful enough, that every time someone touched the body work, it would reflect their handprints. The company also lurched violently from one cash crisis to another and was dependent on the handouts that were doled out to it with increasing reluctance by the early 1980s Tory government. The continual demand for more and more cash was accompanied by evasive answers as to how exactly the previous round of funding had been spent.
The public and motoring press received the car initially with mixed reviews. The early vehicles had impressive pre-order lists, but at a retail price of $25,000 ($68,000 in 2015 dollars), the vehicle proved to be cost-prohibitive for most people given its perception as an under-powered sports car luxury.
By late 1981, a lack of demand, ever spiralling costs and a less-than-favourable exchange rate had put increasing pressure on DeLorean’s cash flow. The company had identified a break-even point of 10,000 – 12,000 units, but sales at this point were rumoured to be stalling at about 6,000 units.
Despite a heroic effort to keep the company afloat, the final straw came in 1982 when John DeLorean was arrested and charged with drug trafficking offences – namely, attempting to smuggle $24 million worth of cocaine into the United States and even though he was eventually acquitted of all charges on account of being coerced into incriminating himself as part of an FBI sting operation, his reputation became forever tarnished by the events. After the trial DeLorean himself quipped, “Would you buy a used car from me?”
DMC eventually went bankrupt in 1982, resulting in the loss of 2500 jobs and over $100 million in investments. The vision of healing the wounds of Northern Ireland’s troubles using industrial innovation was forever laid to rest and DeLorean claimed that his company was deliberately closed for political reasons, citing a solidly viable enterprise with millions of dollars in the bank and two years of dealer orders still on the books.
Between January 1981 and December 1982, approximately 9,000 cars were produced in total and a large number of the original cars are still on the road today after over three decades. What was intended as a mass-production vehicle is now a coveted limited-edition classic car, with DeLoreans in mint condition fetching up to £35,000.
In our opinion John DeLorean shouldn’t be too downhearted about not initially setting the world alight with his forward-thinking vision. The DMC-12 may only have gone from 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds, but once you hit 88 mph there’s no other car that performs quite like it!