It’s fairly well known in the auto industry that cars like sports cars and other “halo” cars exist to attract buyers into the showrooms so that you can sell the cars you actually make money on. So it was surprising that this week’s turkey car, the DeLorean DMC-12, was ever created. Considering the credentials of the company founder as well as all the other players, you’d think they would have thought this through.
Its pedigree is outstanding, being the brainchild of John Z DeLorean who served as Vice President of GM and who ran that company’s Pontiac division. Among his visionary products were the GTO which certainly did bring people into the showrooms and even inspired a song. But the car turned out to be a turkey at a time when being an automaker wasn’t such a great thing anyway, what with a recession that was only barely bested by the famous one of the 1930s that also almost took Chrysler with it. Almost.
The DeLorean started out with newsworthy credentials - a unique steel backbone design by Lotus and a stainless steel sandwich exterior that could be buffed out if it were scratched. Not only was John DeLorean at the head of the company, but Lotus founder Colin Chapman handled much of the engineering and famous Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro of Ital Design took care of the looks.
To be fair, the original plans called for a light and sporty Wankel engine which would have given the car a much different personality than the lethargic Volvo V6 it ultimately ended up with but even Corvettes of the same vintage couldn’t muster much better performance than the DeLorean actually delivered.
The Wankel engine itself was such a factor in several car designs of the 1970s, being the heart of what was also supposed to motivate the AMC Pacer. When GM dropped plans to produce the engine both the Pacer and the DeLorean, as well as GM’s own Chevrolet Monza, suffered with a piston engine that took the space but didn’t have the heart. For younger readers, it’s important to know that piston engines in the 1970s and ‘80s were lethargic, wheezing beasts that had all the fun sapped out of them by emissions before electronics came and saved the species, turning it into the efficient, powerful creature it is today.
Interestingly the DeLorean and its charismatic founder had more famous names attached when celebrities such as Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis, Jr. put money into the company to help it get off the ground. At the time Ireland was not known as a high tech hub so that country ponied up some £100 million to have the company bring the factory there.
I remember when these came out what a huge deal it was. Every car enthusiast magazine couldn’t wait to get their hands on one for a test - it was as if the DeLorean was the iPhone of its day. Those exciting gull wing doors, that stainless steel outer shell over a sandwich construction and that unique style along with the names behind the badge made this as intriguing as the Tesla Model 3 with similar interest and folks lining up to put money down on one despite the horrible economy.
But the company faltered along with the economy of the time and John Z, as many knew him, decided to go to extraordinary measures to save the company that bore his name which resulted in his being charged with cocaine smuggling and sent to the big house. Cocaine was also very, very popular at that time, not that I have any knowledge of that despite my working in night clubs in Hollywood in the 1980s.
DeLorean became synonymous with the drug culture of the 1980s and was really kind of a waning star when the movie Back to the Future took one of the cars and turned it into a time machine. The 1985 movie told a new DeLorean story and I have seen a number of vintage DeLoreans at car shows made-up to replicate the time machine car from the movie. It could almost be surmised that the time machine version is really the more popular one.
Even so, there is a company in Texas that owns the leftover parts from the DeLorean factory and is threatening to make new/old DeLoreans. Seriously. The company’s backers estimate that there are people willing to step up with many tens of thousands of dollars and buy a car from the early 1980s that is sold as new. And who wouldn’t want a car that a modern Toyota Corolla can out-accelerate that is difficult to get into and out of?
Despite its credentials, the incredible team that brought the car to production and the entertaining story of its charismatic founder, the DeLorean truly is one of November’s turkeys. So whether traveling through time or just puttering around town I raise a drumstick at you, DeLorean, for being an icon of bad timing, drug culture and time travel.