The Incredible Rise & Fall of the Delorean

James Logie

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Don’t worry, we’ll get to “Back to the Future.”

First, we’ve got a lot of interesting story to cover. The tale of the DeLorean is the same as the story of its creator: a rapid rise followed by a spectacular failure.

But thanks to a certain time travel movie, the car would live on forever.

It’s a story that features ingenuity, passion, government involvement, drug trafficking, and a desire to innovate.

This is the story of John Z. DeLorean and one of the greatest and most iconic cars in history: the DeLorean.

Who Was John Z. DeLorean?

This man is like taking Elon Musk, Tony Stark, and Steve Jobs and throwing them into a blender.

He had the playboy persona of Tony Stark, the ingenuity of Elon Musk, and a Jobs-like fixation on the tiniest of details.

John Z. DeLorean grew up in the heart of the automotive industry: Detroit, Michigan. He had a rough upbringing in the 1920s but was able to make something of himself.

He worked for the Pontiac car company and helped to design one of the greatest cars ever: the Pontiac GTO.

He also worked for Chevrolet and was a corporate member of General Motors before branching out on his own.

For the Tony Stark side of John DeLorean, he had a Hollywood look about him, extreme charisma, and wore flashier suits compared to the stuffy nature of the corporate car world.

He schmoozed with the rich and famous, dated supermodels, and ended up marrying one.

But he wanted to be his own boss and leave his own legacy with cars. Just as Elon Musk would do decades later, John DeLorean would branch out and take the enormous risk of starting his own car company.

Similar to Musk, he immediately went to work on what would be his company's flagship vehicle: a two-seater sports car.

Creating the DeLorean Motor Company

The DMC was really like the Tesla of the day, and with word spreading of his new car company, DeLorean recruited the best of the best in the car world.

Everyone wanted to work for him and challenge the status quo of the automotive industry.

Those best of the best were also bringing along their proteges, and these proteges are the ones that now run the global automotive industry.

Much of what is happening in the world of cars today is because of the people who worked for DeLorean.

The company was officially founded in 1975 and he raised the money through some of his celebrity friends, including Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr.

He set up shop in Northern Ireland as this allowed him to get a majority of the funding from the government as opposed to his own capital.

Putting the DeLorean Together

The goal of the company was to create a high-end car that would take on the likes of BMW.

The design of the DeLorean goes back to 1974 and John DeLorean had only three requirements:

  1. Gull-wing doors
  2. A mid-range engine
  3. Stainless steel with no paint

Why these specifics, specifically the stainless steel and gull-wing doors? In DeLorean’s mind, he knew that to be a brand new car, it had to have some unorthodox features that made it stand out.

Because of his Steve Jobs-like fixation on the quality of the product — and how every aspect must be flawless, developing the DeLorean was a drawn-out ordeal. He stated that:

“Poor quality threatens to destroy us. Every defect, each recall, only diminishes the credibility of whatever amount of advertising we do.”

The car needed to be perfect.

Pushing This Car Out Too Quickly

There had been a large amount of unemployment in Ireland going into 1979, and a majority of those who worked on the DeLorean (now officially called the DMC-12, as it was to sell for $12,000) had never had a job before — let alone manufactured cars.

This led to quality control issues and a massive amount of delays.

Unlike Elon Musk, who would sleep in his factory while ensuring the survival of the early Teslas, DeLorean would spend most of his time in New York trying to work with dealers and spread and market his new car.

The U.K. government was told production would start in May 1980 and 30,000 cars would be ready to go in 1981.

Production wouldn’t start until December, and the first car didn’t come off the lot until January 1981.

"Live the Dream, Today"

The specific looks of the car were the key to marketing it. The first time they showed the DeLorean to the public was at the Belfast auto show in 1981.

People went crazy for it.

It looked like something from the future and every camera and member of the press at the event was focused on it.

This was the goal of John DeLorean: Make something unique and it should be able to sell itself. This response continued throughout all of 1981 where it was shown.

But it still needed to be presented to a wider audience.

Print ads helped to market what was now just called the DeLorean, instead of the DMC-12, as the price was spiraling out of control.

The focus of the advertising would be on the concept of being elite and that you would be “living the dream” by owning one.

They marketed the DeLorean in higher-end publications such as American Express Magazine to appeal to those better off.

A limited-edition gold-covered DeLorean would be offered to Gold card members for the sweet price of $85,000. Converted for today, that’s around a quarter-million dollars.

This car was hot, and in a pre-social media age, nothing could beat hype and great word-of-mouth.

Everyone always wants the latest and greatest, and with the DeLorean, they were selling the future (which is an interesting way to look at things now, knowing its legacy).

But there would be some problems with this hastily manufactured car.

Getting the DeLorean on the Market

Those first few DeLoreans didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, but they were moving based on the hype.

The problem was, people were having to wait for years to get one.

Despite all that, the DeLorean was a hot item and everyone wanted to be the first to own one.

For those first six months of 1981, the DeLorean outsold Porsche and Mercedes in the U.S.

In the U.K., it would even outsell the iconic Jaguar.

But the rush to put out the car created many performance issues, including slow speed and poor handling.

By the end of 1981, the company was already in trouble. This was a terrible time to release a car as U.S. automotive sales were now entering a depression.

To break even, DeLorean needed to sell around 10,000 to 20,000 cars.

By the end of the year, they had only sold 6,000.

Things weren’t much better in 1982, and even though the DeLorean was only intended for an American market, they tried to sell them in Europe.

John DeLorean was looking for some U.K. help as they were now only operating three days a week.

He pushed up the production from 50 cars a day to 80, and this was seen as suicide. Interest rates were a mess, a recession loomed, and the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar was a disaster.

The government wanted out.

The Best Commercial of All Time

A great 60-second spot can do wonders for a product, or even an impressive magazine spread — but what about one of the most iconic movies ever made?

One of the early concepts for the “Back to the Future” time machine was a refrigerator, but it was thought that kids might lock themselves in fridges. This safety issue — and lack of mobility — made them switch to a car.

The DeLorean was turning a lot of heads — including those involved with this new time travel movie while its script was being written in 1981.

One big reason for its inclusion in the movie is the script called for the car from 1985 to look like a flying saucer to the Peabody family in 1955.

The design of the DeLorean helped make it look more spaceship-like when it crashed into the barn back in 1955.

The stainless steel finish was also a final selling point to “Back to the Future” producer, Robert Zemeckis, as the stainless steel finish would look fantastic on film.

When fitted out with a flux capacitor and all the other attachments, you’ve got one of the coolest-looking cars in history, and what is essentially one of the major characters of the film.

“Back to the Future” ended up being a massive hit, the number one grossing film of 1985, and made the DeLorean an iconic vehicle.

Fun fact: A DeLorean speedometer can’t hit 88 mph. It legally had to top out at 85, so a custom dash display needed to be created for the movie.

“Back to the Future” created a massive resurgence in interest in the car and many would hop on board trying to own a piece of the greatest movie of all time.

What Was the Ultimate Failure of the DeLorean?

John DeLorean got busted in a drug trafficking sting operation as he was desperate and trying to do anything to save the company. He was acquitted of all charges — but his name was tarnished.

Along with this, there were just too many issues that plagued the car, both mechanically and financially.

It’s hard to start a new company that doesn’t have any history and get it funded. Elon Musk faced the same issues in Tesla’s history.

Musk started with the Tesla Roadster, which was a high-end sports car at a hefty price.

Despite nearly going bankrupt several times, this helped bankroll future editions to get it to the point of a mass-produced vehicle for average people.

The DeLorean went the same route by first being marketed to higher-end clients, but all the production issues didn’t allow for any consistency in the car or the company.

The rush to put the car out there is what would lead to its original demise. Given more time, the DeLorean would have been even better, and they could have consistently promoted it.

The car was OK as far as performance, but it had a coolness factor to it which at least kept it going that first little while.

But it honestly all comes down to “Back to the Future” regarding any form of continued success it experienced.

Had this movie come out in 1982, then you might see DeLorean Model-3s everywhere or grew up being driven around in your family’s DeLorean minivan.

“The End of the Dream, or Is It…?”

Those were the words written inside the right-hand door of the last DeLorean to come off the production line.

These engineers correctly predicted the future that would belong to this iconic car.

The DeLorean would be dead for the time being in 1982, but thanks to “Back to the Future,” this car continues to attract people to this day, and you can still buy them through the revamped DeLorean Motor Company now based in Texas.

Not bad for a car that went out of business over 30 years ago.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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