Driving the DeLorean
by Wayne Batty
It is said that John Zachary DeLorean wanted people’s eyes to light up when they walked through a DMC showroom.
It’s been 40 years since car buyers first had that opportunity, and 36 since the DeLorean’s starring role in Back to the Future. As a then 12-year-old movie-goer, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s masterful design, finished in signature stainless steel, had me mesmerised. My eyes were metaphorically lit, and they have been ever since.
But what’s so great about the car anyway? Why has it secured a spot near the sharp end of most car nutter’s memory grids? Sure there are the movies, the flamboyant John Z. DeLorean PR machine and the drug and finance scandals, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Ideally, it would be fantastic to travel back in time and walk through an actual DeLorean showroom, but that’s not likely to be possible any time soon.
Fortunately there’s Jim, who just happens to have one in his collection.
Jim’s a friendly, down-to-earth guy with a serious passion for motoring’s more unusual pieces. His reason for adding the DeLorean to his collection is simple: ‘The man, the hype, the movie. I like cars with a story to tell.’
Jim’s huge garage is well lit, white walled and immaculate. Reflections of fluorescent strip lights distort voluptuously around the high-gloss paintwork of several other exotics, but I didn't care. My eyes move like strobe lights in a slow 3D scan of the naked time machine. Finally in the presence of a real DeLorean, I can’t hide my delight. After a brief chat, we hop in, head off to a small airport nearby and set up in an empty hangar for the photoshoot.
Above: The DeLorean could never be called classically beautiful like a Miura and it’s not visually outrageous like a Countach, but it definitely gets, and holds, your attention. Image: Marc Bow
Unlike a traditionally painted car, whose shape is defined by the world it reflects, the dull sheen of the DeLorean’s brushed stainless cladding only serves to isolate it from its surroundings. You absorb it one panel at a time. I marvel at the brushed effect and mumble something about the steel. Jim’s quick to point out that it’s best not to touch it ... ever. ‘Like one of those fancy metal fridges, it’s an absolute pain to keep clean.’
Above: Brushed stainless steel – heavy, impractical, but it’ll never rust and it looks incredible. Image: Marc Bow
We pore over the exterior details as Jim tells the story. Like most of his cars, he found it online and paid around $21,000 for it. Although it had been standing in a warehouse for almost 23 years, refurbishment was limited to treating some of the plastic trim for discolouration. It had turned grey over time. Jim also talks of muddy insect pods in the fins of the sump. A dealer demonstration car, he bought it with around 400 miles on the clock. Reading just 1,063 miles now, he assures us he can afford to put on a few more. That’s shorthand for ‘yes, we will definitely get to drive the DeLorean today’.
His car, like all the 8,500-odd DeLoreans, was assembled in a British government-funded factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. It’s fair to say that there were quality issues from the get go. DeLorean’s proposed use of an experimental ERM (Elastic Reservoir Moulding) fibreglass process for the chassis proved unsuitable for mass production. Lotus was called in to re-engineer the car for production. This was accomplished in a remarkably short time – around 25 months – and explains why the car has an epoxy-coated, double-Y steel chassis very similar to that of the Lotus Esprit. Initial plans called for a mid-mounted four-cylinder Citroën engine, but this was quickly swapped for a rear-mounted 2.9-litre PRV (Peugeot, Renault, Volvo) V6 producing 170hp. Sadly, the little V6 was rendered quite lethargic by the addition of two catalytic converters – a requirement for the key US market. These cut power by 25 per cent, leaving a measly 130hp to cope with a 1,266kg kerbweight. It was never going to be enough.
Above: Clever mechanics and gas struts make light work of operating the heavy doors. Image: Marc Bow
Pull on the handle and lift the gullwing door – the original television adverts featured seagulls in almost every frame. Each door weighs a hefty 45kg, but you don’t feel it, thanks to ingenious torsion bars and gas struts. They cut deep into the roof and hinge quite close to the centre. This allows them to be opened with much less clearance than conventionally hinged doors. Access through the large opening is easy enough. Much like John D himself, Jim is 6ft 3in tall and fits perfectly. Recesses in the roof mean headroom is good, too.
Above: Neat enough inside but not nearly as daring or futuristic as the exterior suggests. Image: Marc Bow
You sit low on fully adjustable well-cushioned loungers. The door’s side glass is fixed, except for small, electrically powered window cut-outs. They’re not much larger than a paperback novel, but are handy for drive-throughs and toll booths. The interior is a strange mix of European sports car austerity and American luxury. Factory options were limited to black or grey interiors and five-speed manual or three-speed automatic boxes. Unusually for Americans, most customers opted for ‘stick shift’.
Above: Seats heavily biased in favour of comfort over lateral support – definitely more a tourer than a sports car. Image: Marc Bow
Photoshoot over, it’s time to take the DeLorean for a time travel trip down the local airport runway. Our goal is to get it up to 88mph – the speed required in the film for time travel to occur. It will involve some guesswork because the speedo only reads to 85mph – another crazy US regulation. I ease off the clutch and we’re away. Great Scott, even with 65 per cent of the weight out back, steering without assistance is hard work. Shifting gears isn’t though, as the gearbox is definitely the best mechanical aspect of the car. As I approach the left turn onto the runway, I hit the brakes. Brakes, what brakes? There aren’t any. I push the middle pedal harder than I’ve ever had to and the car slows just enough to make the turn.
The fully independent suspension has double wishbones up front and a multilink setup at the rear. Even on the patchy tarmac roads on the way to the airport, the ride comfort was pretty decent. Out here on the runway, it’s perfect. I’m doing a stately 55mph on my ‘out’ lap. At the end of the light aircraft runway is a painted roundabout. Mid-corner I plant the throttle, just enough for the back end to sit up and take notice. One explanation for the odd rim sizes (14 inches at the front, 15s at the rear) is that it was meant to counter the car’s natural tendency to oversteer. I’m sure it helps, but not quite enough. There’s more than enough tarmac to reach the magic 88, but alas nothing unusual happens and after a couple of runs I return to the hangar.
Above: A dog to drive, but you can’t help but smile anyway. Marc Bow
There are some cars that, though devoid of merit and confused of purpose, just seem to live on. Like a bad sector on your hard drive, the DeLorean has refused to disappear. The styling was classic ‘1980s wedge’ – definitely interesting, but hardly revolutionary. Its weight distribution was inferior to that of a contemporary Porsche 911, with tail-happy dynamics to match. Powered (in the loosest sense) by a Swedo-French, rental-spec V6, it became a part-Italian, part-British sportscar sans the sport, with all the purity of a backstreet runt. Financially, it sank faster than the Titanic.
So here’s my take on why the DeLorean transcends time. While it is the fruit of John DeLorean’s undeniable ego, it is also tangible evidence of his passion. It was not engineered by an accountant, styled by committee and signed off by bigwigs in matching grey suits. In today’s world where cars are increasingly shaped by marketing departments, the DeLorean still represents the ultimate anti-corporate car: a four-wheeled, two-finger salute to the status quo. As a sports car it’s rubbish, and yet it’s just so cool you can’t help but smile while driving it. And you can’t say that about too many of the automobile world’s other great lemons.
Other articles by Wayne Batty