If you watched the movie “Back To The Future” you’ll remember the sleek silver bullet that soared through the atmosphere and vanished into the clouds from its 0-96 km/h in an 8.8 second start. By the time it returned from the skies in 1985 and swooped to a shuddering stop in an aura of vapour, the real DeLorean, that sleek stainless steel, fuel-injected V-6, had already made its debut on the ground…. and all but disappeared.
John Zachary DeLorean, son of Romanian immigrants, was born in 1925 in Detroit. He attended Cass Technical High School (for Detroit’s honor students) where he excelled in the electrical curriculum. A scholarship earned him a spot at Lawrence Institute of Technology (for the elite industrial engineering draftsmen and designers). Part-time employment during school and after the war was at a Chrysler body shop, and from there in 1952 he graduated from the Chrysler Institute with a master’s degree in automotive engineering.
Leaving Chrysler for a more lucrative offer with Packard Motor Company, John DeLorean quickly gained notoriety by designing and launching the Twin-Ultramatic transmission with an improved torque converter and dual drive ranges. The Packard Company clung to the philosophy of remaining high-end with precision engineered luxury cars, and therefore suffered as it tried to compete with the other manufacturers who were pounding out affordable mainstream products. Packard merged with Studebaker in 1954, and for $16,000 DeLorean joined GM’s Pontiac division as assistant to the Chief Engineer.
At GM he was credited with many new innovations, but his best known contribution was the Pontiac GTO, a speedy vehicle with youth appeal, a hot seller, and widely considered to be the first muscle car. During his many years at Pontiac, DeLorean enjoyed freedom and the celebrity that came with his position. He spent a good deal of time travelling around the world where he earned the reputation as a maverick corporate businessman with trendy dress and careless wit. In 1967 he introduced the Pontiac Firebird, and then turned his attention to an all new Pontiac Grand Prix which hit the roads for 1969. During that same year he was promoted to General Manager of the Chevrolet Division commanding a salary in excess of $400,000.
At that time Chevy was in financial difficulty due to the bad publicity with the Corvair, and quality control issues with other models that eventually led to a recall of over 6 million Chevrolets from the 1965 to ’69 years. DeLorean streamlined production overhead and reduced assembly costs, modified the Corvette and Camaro, introduced the Nova – and by 1971 Chevrolet was experiencing record sales. His rise to President of General Motors seemed inevitable, but instead he shocked the world by resigning in 1973. He was given a Florida Cadillac franchise as a retirement gift.
DeLorean left GM to form his own company DeLorean Motor Company (the famous DMC label). The correct Romanian spelling for his name, and what he used himself until he formed his own company, was Delorean. During the operation days it was the De Lorean Motor Company, and John used the space when signing his name in anything relating to the business. In typewritten documents and correspondence a half space rather than a full space appeared between the two segments – which on a quick look registered ‘no space’ and thus DeLorean became the most used version of the name. The stylized version on the silver automobile uses the half space.
The first DeLorean prototype, the DMC-12 was competed in 1976. From there till production in 1981 several changes to components and design were made, but the emerging sports car was famous for its rear mount engine, stainless steel outer shell, and gull-wing doors (originally pioneered by Mercedes-Benz with their 300SL race car).
DeLorean required millions to develop his motor company and convinced several Hollywood celebrities to invest with him. The original factory was to be built in Puerto Rico, but was changed to Dunmurry, Northern Ireland when the Irish government offered a substantial amount towards the manufacturer in the hopes of reviving its own failing economy and high unemployment rate.
During 1981 the inexperienced workers were paid premium wages and supplied with the best equipment available. The engines were built in northern France, and the gearbox built at the Renault facility in Normandy. These engines and gearboxes were shipped on a weekly basis, by sea, to the factory in Ireland.
John DeLorean believed that ‘model years’ were primarily a gimmick used by automobile companies to sell more cars. Instead of making massive changes at the end of each year, he implemented modifications mid-production. This resulted in no clear distinction between the 1981, 1982, and 1983 model years, but rather subtle changes taking place almost continually throughout the life of the DeLorean.
DMC-12s (the 12 refers to the original anticipated price of $12,000) were intended for the American market despite being manufactured overseas, and models were therefore left-hand drive. There was an awareness that right-hand drive would have to be available to supply the European market but it was deemed more economical to do this post production. Only 16 factory-authorized right hand DeLoreans were ever produced.
A 1980 Christmas American Express promotion gimmick planned to sell one hundred 24k-Karat gold plated DMC-12s to its Gold Card members. Only two were sold.
Except for the gold plated ones, all cars left the Ireland factory with the stainless steel panels uncovered by paint or clearcoat. Small scratches could be removed with a non-metallic scouring pad or even sandpaper. The stainless steel body poses problems for restoration, but DeLorean had envisioned that damaged panels would simply be replaced rather than repaired.
A misconception was that the gull-wing doors would require far more side clearance to open. Actually the opposite is true – these doors when opening only require 11 inches clearance outside the line of the car.
Only 9000 cars rolled off the assembly line before bankruptcy closed the factory in late 1982. About 6500 are believed to still exist. Although John DeLorean was arrested and later acquitted on cocaine smuggling charges, the plot had been his last ditch effort to save his financially sinking company.
An Ohio based company, KAPAC, acquired remaining stock and parts from the original suppliers which had not yet been delivered to the DeLorean factory. It sold this inventory to wholesale and retail customers via mail order.
Steven Wynn, an expert mechanic, began working on DeLoreans in the ‘80s and like other mechanics of the time ordered all his parts and supplies from Ohio. When KAPAC wanted out of the parts business in 1997, Wynn purchased the complete stock. From his operation in Humble, Texas, and with the world’s biggest stash of DeLorean parts and engines, Wynn is reviving the sports car’s notoriety by hand-making two vehicles a month. The 35-yr old cars are stripped to the frame and rebuilt using 80% new old parts stock from his DeLorean inventory as well as his line of reproduction parts. These new DeLoreans will be sold from the Humble Texas location plus an affiliate shop in Bonita Springs, Florida and three other U.S. States.
In 2004 Tony Ierardi, a DeLorean fan since the car’s debut when he was 11, resurrected the DeLorean franchises and became the only DeLorean parts, sales, service, and refurbishing company in the southeastern U.S. His ultra modern Gulf Coast Motorworks offers retail sales as well as a high end service and restoration outlet catering to the collectors’ need for exotic sports cars.
There is a Canadian DeLorean Car Club based in Toronto. Members of this association use Bonita Springs as the service and parts supply depot for their restorative work.
Besides the DeLorean, another gull-wing car that bit the dust was the Bricklin. This one, boasting a myriad of features far exceeding safety requirements of the time, is the only sports car with power gull-winged doors. The 1974 creation was manufactured in Canada for exclusive sale in the United States. The vehicle was assembled in Saint John with body panels constructed from a second plant in Minto, New Brunswick. A combination of money problems plus owner inexperience in the auto industry resulted in the Bricklin factories not being able to produce cars fast enough to make a profit. When Bricklin ‘went under’ two years later it took the New Brunswick government with it to a tune of $23 million. Only 2854 cars came off the assembly line. It’s estimated about 1500 are still on the road.
As part of a series commemorating Historic Land Vehicles, Canada issued a 45 cent stamp in 1996 and a silver and gold $20 Bricklin coin in 2003. Both sold out quickly and were a greater success than the car itself.
The Edsel was another grand dream that flopped. The production from 1958 – 61 was intended to make inroads into the domestic car trade and close the market gap between The Ford Motor Company and GM. The Edsel offered many original features such as rolling speedometer, warning lights for engine conditions (i.e. low oil), teletouch transmission (pushbuttons located in centre of steering wheel), seatbelts, and rear child safety locks. But alas, the Edsel never gained popularity and sold poorly. Total Edsel sales were 116,000 of which 7440 were produced in Ontario. These figures did not hit the projected “break even” point, and Ford lost millions.
DeSoto evaporated after a successful history from 1928 – 1962 manufacturing a mid-priced line of domestic vehicles within a division of Chrysler. Its decline could be blamed in part on the 1958 recession which reduced the demand for middle line cars. The eventual failure was attributed to corporate mistakes plus events beyond Chrysler’s control causing the downtrend from a luxury automaker to cheaper compacts.
The Studebaker Co. originated in Indiana in1852 as a producer of wagons for farmers, miners, and the military. It entered the automotive industry in 1902 with an electric car (battery operated) and to gasoline operated in 1904. For the next 50 years the company established a reputation for quality and reliability. Studebaker pioneered the first self adjusting brakes (but a few years later Edsel seemed to take credit for them). One of the manufacturing plants was in Walkerville, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. This was a British Empire export assembly plant. That allowed Studebakers to be considered as “British built” and qualify for reduced tariffs. In 1948 a new plant was opened in Hamilton as a post-war consolidated facility where it was projected the Canadian made Studebaker could break even with 20,000 produced a year. While 1965 fell just short of that figure, the company’s directors felt the small profits were not enough to justify continuing. The last Studebaker sedan rolled off the Hamilton assembly line in March 1966. The plant closure resulted in 700 jobless workers, and as the 10th largest employer in the city, adversely affected Hamilton as a whole.
From the earliest days there has always been a dream of fantasy, or an element of exotica in cars. Too often however, those dream castles end up in ruins.