When announced in the mid-1970s, the car that would become the DMC DeLorean appeared to look decades into the future. From its gleaming paint-free stainless steel skin to its corrosion-proof plastic underbody to its (planned) Wankel power and safety-conscious airbags, the “ethical sports car” conceived by one-time Detroit wunderkind John DeLorean was to be like nothing else on the market. What launched in 1981 may have been a semi-hollow promise of the car’s real potential, but there’s no denying that the DeLorean DMC-12 remains one of the most iconic automobiles of the 20th century.
The car DeLorean first showed the world in October 1976 was not the car that arrived at DMC dealers some five years later, indicating that the original design was, perhaps, a bit too advanced in its thinking. Plans to produce a chassis via a process called Elastic Reservoir Molding, for which DeLorean had purchased the patent from former Pontiac chief engineer Bill Collins, were scrapped, necessitating a time-consuming re-engineering process that involved Lotus’s Colin Chapman. The DeLorean that debuted in 1981 used a Vacuum Assist Resin Injection underbody bolted to a backbone chassis similar to the one used by Chapman in the earlier Lotus Esprit.
By then, the Wankel rotary engine had proven to be an evolutionary dead-end, and even DeLorean’s second choice – the Ford Cologne V-6 – wouldn’t be used for production of the DMC-12. Instead, the coupe came to market with a 2.8-liter Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V-6, rated at 130 horsepower and 160 pound-feet of torque and available with both a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. With a curb weight of 2,840 pounds, the De Lorean’s 0-60 mph time of 9.5 seconds and top speed of 120 mph was not in the same league as the Porsche 911, a car benchmarked early in development as a DeLorean rival.
Underneath, the DeLorean’s four-wheel independent suspension used double wishbones, coil springs, telescoping shocks and an anti-roll bar up front, along with a multilink trailing arm suspension in the rear. Disc brakes were used in all four corners, and the rack and pinion steering came without power assist. Though this yielded decent steering feel at speed, it also made parallel parking a challenge for all but the strongest drivers. Initial plans called for the DeLorean to be mid-engine, rear drive, but the changes to chassis and engine ultimately saw the car debut as a rear-engine, rear-drive model carrying nearly 70-percent of its weight over the rear wheels.
On the plus side, the DMC-12 came to market with the same stainless steel skin and gullwing doors depicted on the concept. As owners would soon find out, this was both a blessing and a curse; though the stainless skin (which attached to a glass-reinforced plastic monocoque) was easy to care for, it was difficult to repair. Small scratches could be buffed out with sandpaper or non-metallic scrubbing pads, but dents in the stainless steel panels were hard to remove due to the nature of the material. As a result, DeLorean’s plans from the onset called for replacement of body panels instead of repair (which, oddly, led to a substantial supply of spares long after the factory was closed).
The car’s gullwing doors were far less of an issue, though some owners complained of poor ventilation from the small side windows required by the narrow door bottom. Straddling a wide sill proved challenging for some, though as Jeff Koch pointed out in a 2010 article for Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, climbing in or out requires less contortion than a fourth-generation Chevrolet Corvette.
Speaking of Chevrolet’s sports car, initial plans called for the DeLorean to be priced on par with the near-end-of-life third-generation Corvette, which stickered from $16,259. The 12 in the car’s name is often said to reflect an original target of a $12,000 base price. Re-engineering the DMC-12 added significantly to the price, however, and by the time the first cars arrived at dealerships, the DeLorean carried a sticker price of $27,500, putting it in a league with the higher-performance Porsche 911’s $28,000 asking price. Despite this, interest in the DeLorean remained high, with many dealers reporting sales at $10,000 over sticker and customer waiting lists for delivery.
Production of the cars took place in Dunmurry, on the outskirts of Belfast, Northern Ireland. To counter high unemployment in the area, the British government agreed to loan DeLorean $120 million in start-up money, and a factory was constructed that would support growth beyond the minimum projection of 10,000 to 12,000 annual units. Despite rumors of quality issues at the plant, evidence indicates that this was no more or less of an issue than with any other new automotive manufacturing operation, and by the 1982 model year, most of the initial production bugs had been ironed out.
Though initial sales were brisk, they fell far short of the 10,000 units needed to break even, and by February of 1982 the DeLorean Motor Company was in receivership. Reorganization involved a complex web of companies, including parent DeLorean Motors Holding Company, manufacturer DeLorean Motor Cars Limited, distributor DeLorean Motor Cars of America and research and development arm DeLorean Research Partnership. The United States Securities and Exchange Commission was not convinced the company could survive, and a planned stock offering that would have generated revenue for ongoing operations was cancelled.
John DeLorean once again turned to the British government for assistance, but the best it offered was to match monies raised from other investors. Desperate to raise capital, DeLorean found himself embroiled in an FBI sting operation, and any hopes of a revival were ended by a suitcase full of cocaine and a series of charges for money laundering, which DeLorean later beat by claiming entrapment.
Ultimately, the failure of DeLorean as a company rested on far more than the arrest of its founder. A weakening market for luxury cars, production cost increases, and unfavorable exchange rates all contributed to the end of a company that once showed such promise. By December of 1982, the plant in Dunmurry was shuttered after the construction of 9,170 automobiles, returning some 2,500 employees to the unemployment line and costing Britain an estimated $100 million in loan defaults. That might have been the end of the DeLorean saga, except for two things: the immortalization of the car in the Back to the Future film series, and an impressive supply of DeLorean spare parts, now owned by the DeLorean Motor Company (no relation to the original) of Humble, Texas.
Though the last De Lorean built in Ireland left the factory in 1982, today’s DeLorean Motor Company can supply nearly 99 percent of the parts needed to refurbish an existing car, and even has plans to restart production of “new build” De Loreans, pending the (eventual) approval of the “Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturer’s Act.” Until then, the market for used DMC DeLoreans remains robust, with prices continuing to rise.
Monroney label from a 1982 DMC De Lorean; in its second year on the market, the sticker price had risen to $29,825. Photo by Expandinglight5.
In 2014, NADA set the average value of a DMC DeLorean (including all model years 1981 – ’83) at $29,000, with a high value (for cars in exceptional condition) of $45,300. In 2019, this had risen to $32,900 for an average example, or $53,600 on the high end of the range. A quick search of the Hemmings Classifieds reveals 11 DeLorean DMC-12 currently advertised with us, ranging in price from $19,500 (for a “project” condition car in need of restoration) to $69,900 (for an example remanufactured by the DeLorean Motor Company in 2011, upgraded with every available option).
Interest in the model shows no sign of tapering off soon, and if smartly bought, a DMC-12 stands a reasonable chance of appreciating in the coming years. It isn’t likely to become a blue-chip collectible, but any DeLorean will likely be the center of attention at cruise-ins and weekend show-and-shines. There are better-performing cars in the price range, but we can’t think of a single example that draws a crowd as well as the DMC-12.