"You built a time machine out of a DeLorean?" [BTTF Week]

“You built a time machine out of a DeLorean?” [BTTF Week]

“You built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” Okay, now stop. If it wasn’t for Back to the Future, would the word DeLorean mean anything to you?

BTTF WeekPresumably in 1985, the line quoted in this post’s title was hee-larious.  But while most of Back to the Future holds up remarkably well, this particular joke has become nonsensical.  For a generation of pop culture junkies, a DeLorean has been naught BUT a time machine.

The BTTF DeLoreanEven then, the DeLorean looked more like a time machine than like a car.  And like the Flux-Capacitor, it is the product of one man’s crackpot invention.  The story of the DeLorean Motor Coorporation is a tale of hubris and excess, of human frailty and vaunting ambition, of police entrapment and suitcases full of cocaine.  In some ways, it’s just as compelling as Back to the Future, which is probably why it’s currently under development by a company called “Stainless Steel Productions.” Preemptive spoilers for the unmade film, after the jump.

Fast cars… they… run… me down
John DeLorean was already an experienced auto executive when he founded the DeLorean Motor Corporation, having been at least partially responsible for creating the iconic Pontiac GTO.   This is not something that his behavior after founding the DMC would lead us to believe.   To say that the DMC-12 (what we call a “DeLorean”) does not betray the hand of a seasoned designer is a gross understatment:  DeLorean’s original plans suggest not so much that he had never designed a muscle car, as that he had never even seen one, and instead only heard them described.  The design is half Euro (4-cylinder rotary engine), half science fiction (a fiberglass monocoque coated with decorative stainless steel panels), and %100 vanity project.  Case in point:  John DeLorean was a tall man (6’4″), and if he was going to build a car, he saw no reason why it shouldn’t be tailored to his own frame.  You know those famous gull-wing doors?  They wound up having to attach a strap to the handle so that people other than DeLorean himself could close the door from the inside.  It didn’t have three horns that all played La Cucaracha, but it was pretty damn close.


An early blueprint for the DMC 12.

Much of DeLorean’s original design had to be scrapped:  the car that eventually rolled off the Irish factory’s assembly line was basically a Lotus crossed with a Renault, retaining only visual elements such as the stainless steel panels, the gull-wing doors, and the car’s basic silhouette (this last being the work of legendary designer Giorgetto Giugiaro).  Even so, the car’s overall performance was “crappy.”  Although it was intended mainly for the American market, neither of the designs bothered to include the federally mandated catalytic converters.  When these were added to the car – which had a relatively puny engine to begin with, counting instead on the lightness of DeLorean’s discarded chassis design – it was crippled.  Most modern DeLorean enthusiasts pay to have the original engine replaced with something less infuriating.  (If you ever wondered how a VW bus full of Libyan terrorists could keep up with a “sports car,” even for a few seconds, now you know.)   The problems didn’t stop with the transmission:  in some early models, the alternator was incapable of fully powering the car’s electronics, which meant that if you drove it for a few hours with the lights and radio on, you’d wind up with a drained battery and a one-ton stainless steel paperweight.  And it’s best not to even speculate about its safety…

That’s a forty-mile-per-hour crash test, there.  Forty.  And this is the improved model:  one computer simulated test of DeLorean’s original design showed that a TWENTY-SIX mph collision would send the rear-mounted gear box rocketing straight through the cabin (and quite possibly through the driver).

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
The financial basis of the DeLorean Motor Company was just as verkakte as its engineering, if such a thing is possible.  The seed money came mostly from Hollywood types like Johnny Carson (who would later learn about the alternator problem first hand).  Further operating capital came from the British government, which was desperate to attract industry to the impoverished Belfast area.   Hype for the unreleased car was incredible:  there was a waiting list to buy them, and some crafty souls made a tidy sum speculating on DeLorean futures, buying the cars and then flipping them for well over their $25,000 list price.   And somehow, despite all this, the company was bankrupt in less than two years. It was up to DeLorean himself to somehow save his dream.  His business sense and car-designing skills had proved lacking, but what of that?  The man had courage, a vision, and a genius for self-promotion.  Surely that would be enough? But in fact, it was DeLorean’s vision that did him in.  He had believed that the public was hankering for a shiny, expensive, and ludicrously impractical luxury car.  When his company started to fail, he decided to go shinier, more expensive, and even more ludicrously impractical.  “So you don’t want to buy my car, America?  Well what if we plate it in

24 Karat Gold!!

And I’m not even slightly making this up.  Ladies and Gentlemen, meet John DeLorean, the fucking Gob Bluth of the American auto industry.


You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this coupe of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a car of gold!

So yeah. THAT didn’t work.  DeLorean’s next move was even crazier.  He needed to get money from somewhere, and fast.  Now, you may be thinking, “Well, it’s the eighties.  Surely there’s some kind of cocaine smuggling operation he could get involved in?”  And sure enough…  In 1982, months before the DMC factory in Ireland closed its doors for good, DeLorean was approached by John Hoffman, a career drug trafficker.  Hoffman was looking for desperate men, and DeLorean was increasingly desperate.  Eventually, DeLorean agreed to provide Hoffman with $1.8 million to purchase cocaine, which would then be smuggled into the U.S. and sold for an estimated $24 million.  In fact, both men planned to double-cross eachother.  DeLorean was hoping to somehow convince Hoffman to take DMC stock as his share of the profits, and then to use the proceeds of the drug deal to found a new company, leaving Hoffman (and the British government, which was by then the main DMC shareholder) holding the bag.  Hoffman’s plan was more practical:  he was actually an informer for the FBI.    Hustler’s Larry Flynt eventually obtained and distributed a tape of the sting operation, which took place at an airport hotel in L.A.  As DeLorean accepted the briefcase full of cocaine, he pronounced it “better than gold.”  I guess he would know, right? DeLorean was eventually found not guilty due to police entrapment.  But this was the final nail in the coffin of the DeLorean Motor Company.  If it weren’t for Marty McFly, the DMC-12 model would have passed from this earth unmourned and unlamented (although given the car’s rustproof construction, it would probably have hung around for a while).  But of course that’s not what happened.  Thanks to Back to the Future, the DeLorean is the most iconic car model this side of the Model-T Ford.  Some special editions of the DVDs even include a letter DeLorean sent to Zemeckis, thanking him for granting his ill-fated car immortality.  And believe it or not, a Texas company recently started selling “new DeLoreans,” made from the DMC’s extensive stockpile of spare parts.  To do a better job of salvaging the car’s reputation, you would need to… well, go back in time.  (And here’s hoping the eventual DeLorean movie is a Charlie Kaufman mindfuck that featuring an attempt to do just that.)


Yes, the way I see it, if you want to preside over one of the great business debacles of the twentieth century, why not do it with some style?

But until then, we’ll have to let DeLorean put his own life in perspective, with this quote from a Robert Scheer interview:  “I think my ultimate sin … was that I had this insatiable pride.  Looking back at it, I see that I had an arrogance that was beyond that of any other human being alive.”  Not quite as entertaining as “Think, McFly, think!” or “I am… your density.”  But worth remembering, all the same.

24 Comments on ““You built a time machine out of a DeLorean?” [BTTF Week]”

  1. Marty #

    That gold car reminds me of the gold and diamond MacBook Pro. What’s the point? Making money I guess.


  2. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    You get a Win for including the photo of “The Homer.”

    But here’s the big question – WHY did the BTTF creators decide to make the time machine a Delorean? Because it LOOKED science fiction? Because it’s a joke about Doc’s quirky sense of style? Or because the car’s disaster-plagued backstory makes it somehow appropriate for an impossible invention?


  3. lee OTI Staff #

    “Thanks to Back to the Future, the DeLorean is the most iconic car model this side of the Model-T Ford.”

    I love the thrilling feeling you get whenever you see a Delorean out on the streets. Gets me every time. I can’t think of any other car models that come even close…maybe James Bond’s silver Aston Martin from the Sean Connory movies. Any others?


  4. Matthew Wrather #

    There is a story (that I read on IMDb) that the filmmakers decided on the DeLorean because the gull-wing doors made it look like a spaceship, to motivate the first alien sequence in the 50s.


  5. lee OTI Staff #

    When the Peabodys discover the DeLorean in the barn, the kid is holding a sci-fi comic book; on the cover is a flying saucer with gull wings.

    The comic book cover was created as a prop for the movie:



  6. Gab #

    Call me crazy, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a DeLorean on the streets. Really, the only place I’ve seen one is onscreen… Does that mean I’m under a rock and didn’t know it, or what?

    80s question: The DeLorean wasn’t the only car made in the 80s with doors like that. I know some current Lamborghinis have ones that sort of swing in a curve and go up, so they’re a lot less like wings than the DeLorean, but they still don’t open like conventional cars. Why are the wing-like doors obsolete now? I like cars, but I’ve never found a non-conventional doors appealing- I’ll look at and drool over the car while it’s doors are shut, then, thanks. But I don’t think my reason for not liking the wingy doors is the same reason they aren’t as cool any more. I just wonder why. And another eighties craze you don’t see anymore are those automatic seatbelts- you know what I’m talking about.


  7. lee OTI Staff #

    I’ve had at least two DeLorean sightings. What are the odds?

    According to Wikipedia, about 6,500 are believed to still exist. And there are about 62 million cars on the roads in America. Assuming that all of those DeLoreans are in America (which they probably aren’t), the odds of any given car being a DeLorean are about 9,538 to 1.

    In other words, you’re more likely to survive overnight on the ice planet of Hoth than to see a DeLorean. The odds on the former are 725 to 1, according to R2D2 in _The Empire Strikes Back_.


  8. sarielthrawn #

    Yes, but Artoo has been known to make mistakes… from time to time.

    I think they chose the DeLorean because it looked science fictiony and it would have been a cheap car (Lamborghinis would have been too expensive) that the professor could easily afford to blow up if required. And if your method of time travel necessitates that you reach speeds of 88mph, then it has to be something with wheels. Although judging by what you’ve said about its performance, Doc Brown must have made a few modifications there too.


  9. stokes OTI Staff #

    Especially with all that heavy time travel equipment in the back! But I’m guessing Doc at least stripped the catalytic converters out of the thing. If you’re willing to accept the environmental risks posed by plutonium, you probably aren’t going to sweat the carbon emissions.


    • Cody johnson #

      I love reading eveeything you write. It’s just about exactly what needs to be said. Your article on Moonrise Kingdom was -fantastic !


  10. stokes OTI Staff #

    @Gab – While researching this post, I learned that Gull Wing doors are actually vanishingly rare, usually appearing only on concept cars. Wikipedia has a list, and if you click around you’ll find that only a few were ever really available to the general public, some of those only in Europe or Japan.

    I was kind of surprised to learn this… like you, I think of crazy doors as kind of a retro thing. My guess is that Back To The Future warped our fragile little minds, and made us remember crazy doors where none really existed.


  11. Gab #

    Lee, are you sure it wasn’t the same DeLorean but at different times? Maybe you had a crazy neighbor…

    Stokes, I’m wondering two things, now. First, if maybe we should assume the Doc changed the engine like we now know fans of the DeLorean do if they find one today. Second, does making the door of a car flip open differently *realy* make it cost all that much more? To put it another way, could a regular sedan have scissor doors and still cost about the same, or is it *really* a status symbol to have bizarre doors on your car?


  12. fenzel #

    There was a guy in my hometown whose dad had a DeLorean.

    When I was in high school, I acted in a movie made by a bunch of my friends, and the DeLorean was very heavily featured.

    I believed the protagonist (who was a pretty unsympathetic character at times) was trying to convince another character that it was a time machine for some nefarious purpose.

    But perhaps the less that is said about _Supertheft_, the better.

    Or perhaps I’ll talk about it at length at some point in the future.


  13. lee #

    “I think they chose the DeLorean because it looked science fictiony and it would have been a cheap car (Lamborghinis would have been too expensive) that the professor could easily afford to blow up if required.”

    The DeLorean wasn’t a cheap car, but the movie clearly states that Doc comes from money. He spent his entire family fortune on his inventions and research.

    A more stylish gull wing car would be the Mercedez 300SL:



  14. nononod #

    i saw one in melbourne australia… tripped me out big… not only the rareity but it was converted to right hand drive… damn rare!


  15. Jochen #

    Interesting detail: The sound we hear from the DeLorean is derived (well, minus the “electrical” whine) from a Porsche 928. Some sources even claim that the sub-standard PRV-engines in the movie cars were replaced by these Porsche-V8s to deliver more Oomph! during shooting.

    Just listen closely for the start-up…well, goosebumps…


  16. DMC1601 #

    I own and drive a DeLorean and I can say with absolute certainty that a majority of the owners DO NOT swap out the engines in these cars. The frame is designed to have one engine in it and would require severe frame and rear modifications to accommodate for any other. They’re a bit slow, but not too bad overall. The 0-60 time is about 11 secs, the same as a conventional sedan; it’s terrible for such a sleek looking sports car, though.


  17. EdMercer #

    just correcting a factual error there: the engine on the DeLorean is not rotary, nor a 4-cylinder: it is actually a french (therefore very euro indeed) PRV V6. And the designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, has seen his share of muscle cars (his studio designed both the 1965 Ford Mustang and the 2006 remake based on it). He just chose to build a more supercar-friendly shape instead (compare the DMC-12 to the Lotus Esprit, also one of his designs).


  18. Rob T Firefly #

    There’s a great line I’ve always remembered from the MAD Magazine spoof of BTTF; Marty asks Doc why he built a time machine out of a DeLorean, and Doc replies “John DeLorean almost did time because of this machine, so it makes perfect sense!”


  19. stokes OTI Staff #

    @ EdMercer – According to what I read, John DeLorean’s own *original* design had the rotary 4-cylinder. The design that was actually produced (referred to in the article as “a Lotus crossed with a Renault,”) had the French V6, as you say.


  20. Alex #

    The original DeLorean speedometer didn’t even go up to 88 mph. It stopped at 85. There was an optional “sports package” the buyer had to upgrade to in order to have the speedo with a higher top end. Good think Doc checked that option box!


  21. Josh #

    I don’t think DeLorean was as hapless as you make him out to be. Before the utterly epic failure with his own company, he was apparently a guru in the auto industry who knew exactly what people wanted.

    In addition to the biopic in the works, there is already a concept album based on the life and times of John DeLorean:


    To complete the circle, a great OTI moment– what the hell does Alderaan have to do with John DeLorean?


  22. Nicole #

    Just had to give props for the Gob Bluth reference. Plating a car in gold is something he would absolutely do. And Lindsay with her diamond dust. Ohhh, Bluths.


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