DeLorean prototype 1 at the AACA Museum. Photo by Nancy Gates.
In October 1976, the first running prototype of John DeLorean’s futuristic gullwing coupe was delivered by builder Triad Services Group. Though everything from its construction to its drivetrain differed from later production cars, the prototype signaled that DeLorean’s dream of building a car to immortalize his name was one step closer to reality. After making a cameo in the upcoming John DeLorean biography, the DeLorean prototype 1 will star – alongside a production version – in a new temporary exhibit at the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Styling for the prototype came courtesy of Giorgetto Giugiaro, and initial plans called for a mid-engine, rear-drive layout. Power was to come from a lightweight, but powerful, Wankel rotary engine built by Comotor, a joint venture between NSU and Citroën, but that was hardly the car’s most revolutionary feature. DeLorean’s original vision called for a structure built from plastic laminate, using a process he called Elastic Reservoir Molding, or ERM. This would have created a lightweight automobile, but also did away with the need to create steel dies since casting ERM was a low-pressure process.
A production DMC DeLorean (L) and the original running prototype. Photo by Nancy Gates.
Since ERM material proved too difficult to paint to contemporary standards, DeLorean opted to incorporate thin stainless-steel panels, suspended from an ERM substructure, to form the outside body. His reasoning was simple: earlier experiments with stainless steel bodies – such as those created for Allegheny Ludlum – proved that the material was durable and easy enough to maintain. Since changes would be required from prototype to production, creating ERM dies was deemed unnecessary, and instead the underlying structure was crafted of hand-laid fiberglass in the prototypes.
DeLorean prototype 1 post-restoration. Remaining photos by Tony Ierardi, courtesy DMC Florida.
By the time the first running prototype was under construction, the dream of Comotor’s rotary engine had died, so DeLorean opted instead for a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and transaxle assembly as used in the Citroën CX. DeLorean wanted to turbocharge the engine, but found the French automaker uncooperative to his request. In its place, DeLorean selected a 2,849cc V-6 built by PRV (for Peugeot – Renault – Volvo) for the second prototype, and ultimately, the production models. This also necessitated a change to the layout, making later cars rear-engine instead of the mid-engine, as DeLorean initially intended.
According to restorer and former owner Tony Ierardi of DMC Florida, prototype 1 used a pair of stainless steel subframes beneath the fiberglass and composite structure. Once completed, the car made the rounds on the auto show circuit and was photographed for a variety of publications. Automotive journalists – and prospective investors – were even allowed to sit in the car, but test drives were off-limits since production cars would differ in many regards.
By the time production began in 1981, DeLorean had abandoned his idea of using ERM, opting instead for a fiberglass structure mounted atop a Lotus-style backbone chassis. Turbine wheels carried over, though with slightly less texture and in one-inch smaller diameters than the 16-inch rears and 15-inch fronts seen on the prototype. Excluding the pre-production cars built in Ireland, two more prototypes were constructed, including one by Classic Industries of Detroit and one by Visioneering, which was probably closest to the final, production design.
The rest of the story is automotive and pop-culture history. Production of the DMC DeLorean lasted roughly two years before the money ran out, and in an effort to keep the operation afloat, John DeLorean found himself caught up in an FBI cocaine-trafficking sting operation (though he was later found not guilty at trial). Panned as underpowered and overpriced by critics, the DMC DeLorean may have been just a footnote to automotive history, had it not been for its starring role as a time machine in the 1985 Hollywood blockbuster, Back to the Future (and its sequels).
Unlike later cars that used the PRV V-6, prototype 1 used a 2.0-liter Citroën four-cylinder.
The movie franchise spawned – and continues to spawn – renewed interest in the DMC DeLorean, and thanks to an ample supply of spare parts created during the Northern Ireland factory’s operation, cars can be rebuilt as new, with a variety of options and powertrains unimagined during the original production run. Though DeLorean no longer owned his namesake company at this point, he was certainly aware of its success, and was said to be working on a comeback automobile dubbed the DMC2 at the time of his death in March 2005.
The upcoming – and yet to be titled – John DeLorean biography will star Alec Baldwin as John DeLorean and Morena Baccarin as his wife, Cristina Ferrare. His story, directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, will be told with a mix of scripted scenes and interviews with friends, family, and former colleagues. Produced by XYZ films, the movie is due for release in 2018.