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