40 years of DeLorean DMC-12

By: Mark Higgins, Photography by: Unique Cars Archives, Getty Images

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Happy 40th Anniversary DeLorean DMC-12

Although we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the DeLorean DMC-12. that shouldn’t need any introduction to petrol heads and fans of the Back to the Future movies. It’s impossible not to cover the fascinating story of the man behind the badge, automotive tsar John DeLorean.

DeLorean was born in Detroit to Romanian–Hungarian immigrant parents in 1925 and started his automotive career with Chrysler, lasting barely a year before moving to Packard where he worked his way up to the position of head of research and development.


After Packard sold out to Studebaker and DeLorean considered a move to Indiana he received a call from Oliver Kelley a divisional head at GM, offering him his choice of job in any division.

He chose Pontiac and in 1961 became chief engineer.

| Read next: DeLorean DMC-12 'Back To The Future' tribute

Many consider DeLorean the father of American muscle cars having been responsible for the Pontiac GTO, including its concept, engineering and marketing. He became the boss of Pontiac in 1965 at age 40, a record for youngest division head at GM. Years later he became the boss of Chevrolet.


A sports fan, DeLorean was a part owner in the San Diego Chargers the New York Yankees.

By 1971, DeLorean’s transformed Chevrolet was selling more than 3 million vehicles a year, nearly matching the entire sales of Ford. Two years later DeLorean quit GM to form the DeLorean Motor Company but didn’t leave quietly. He was critical of GM’s direction and disliked the concept of using rebates to sell cars. He said, "There’s no forward response at General Motors to what the public wants today...a car should make people’s eyes light up when they step into the showroom. Rebates are merely a way of convincing customers to buy bland cars they’re not interested in."

| Read next: DeLorean DMC-12 John Bowe drive

October 1982 saw DeLorean charged with cocaine trafficking as the alleged financier of a cocaine selling scheme in October.


Mr D and his concept car

However he successfully defended himself using the defence of FBI entrapment and the trial ended with a not guilty verdict in August 1984. By that time DMC had declared bankruptcy and shut down.

On September 21, 1985, DeLorean was charged with defrauding investors and tax evasion by diverting millions of dollars raised for the company to himself. He was once again acquitted of all charges.


Gull wing doors added to the DMC-12 allure

Now, the DMC-12.

It’s said the DMC-12 went from doodles on a restaurant napkin to a completely designed car in a mere five years and the model designation was a symbol of its intended pricetag, US$12,000.

In 1978 a two-seater, rear-engined, rear-wheel drive prototype sports car badged DeLorean was shown. Its stainless steel panels over a fibreglass body was penned by Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro and it featured gull-wing doors, a Renault fuel-injected 2.85lt V6 engine, (though DeLorean’s first choice was a Citroen rotary engine), a choice of a five-speed manual or three-speed auto, a Lotus designed double – Y chassis and it tipped the scales at 1250kgs. A rather enticing proposition.

| Read next: Our favourite Giugiaro designs


However it would be another three years until the production DeLorean DMC-12 was launched in January 1981, with the cars manufactured at a purpose built (by Renault) plant in Northern Ireland financed by the government to the tune of £100 million. 

By then the US car market, the DMC-12’s primary target, was in a severe downturn due to the US 1980 economic recession. If that wasn’t enough the US$25,000 pricetag, double the original estimate, scared many potential buyers away. There were quality issues and the lacklustre reviews that weren’t exactly ringing endorsements for the DMC-12s overall performance.


Compounding the worries were DeLorean’s competitors who were introducing lower priced and high performance cars, like Corvette that sold in record numbers despite the bleak economic outlook.

By the end of 1982 it was over and out but the DeLorean name would be seen again and achieve worldwide recognition thanks to the Back to The Future movies and the car that transported Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) on several journeys through time.


Renault engine rebadged

Unique Cars resident racer John Bowe grabbed some wheel time in a DMC-12 a while back and had this to say.

"Those gullwing doors are awesome and make the car look a lot more modern than something from the early ’80s. But with the modest mechanicals, those amazing looks are the best part of the car; it may have futuristic supercar styling, but I’m sorry to say it doesn’t drive like one, even taking into consideration its era.


"The seats are trimmed in leather, but are not particularly supportive. It has a very low roofline, so it would be difficult to sit in for taller people, but it’s not claustrophobic. And there’s no power steering, though it’s no heavier than a 911 from the same era.

"Don’t get me wrong, it was pleasant to drive, but was obviously tuned for the US market, which favours ride comfort and smoothness over road feel and handling. If it had double the power and stiffer suspension, it would have been wonderful. "Nevertheless, this car certainly makes a statement. Okay, it’s a bit lazy in its performance – a claimed 0-100km/h of 8.9 seconds is hardly even hot-hatch territory – with a bit of tuning you could have something that was fun."


These days the DeLorean is something of a cult car and remaining examples are cherished. There’s even a good supply of spare parts from the US. All DeLoreans were built as left-hand drive though some have been converted to right hookers post production.

In November 2019 it was estimated some 6500 DeLoreans remain on the roads and the guesstimate for Australia is around 100 units. Thanks to social media it seems there is a strong network of owners around the world keeping DeLorean’s dream alive.


There is a DeLorean Motor Company operating in the USA, restoring and supporting the existing fleet.

And after 40 years, the DMC-12 is still doing what it did from day one, turn heads. Happy anniversary.



From Unique Cars #450, March 2021

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