Cars We Love: 1981-1983 DeLorean

The DeLorean DMC-12 may be one of the most visually recognizable cars of all time, even though only 9,200 examples were produced during its short three-year lifespan. But, if you mention the name “DeLorean” to many people, you’ll often get a blank stare in return. If, to those same people, you also mention “time machine” or “flux capacitor,” you’ll probably hear, “Oh, you mean the car that took Marty McFly “Back to the Future.”” With mediocre performance and poor build quality, the DMC-12 is remembered primarily for its role in the popular movie series.

DeLorean DMC-12

The DeLorean DMC-12 was a two-seat, rear-engine GT sports car, powered by an all-aluminum, overhead cam 2.8 liter V6 engine producing 130 horsepower. Colin Chapman and Lotus Cars re-engineered John DeLorean’s prototypes for production, using a Lotus Esprit chassis with four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. The most distinguishing features of the DMC-12 are its gull-wing doors and stainless steel body panels.  Standard equipment included a five-speed manual transmission; air conditioning; rack and pinion steering; power windows, locks and mirrors; tilt/telescoping steering wheel; and tinted glass. The only options were a three-speed automatic transmission and the choice of interior color.

What was the DMC-12 like to drive? Let’s take a look at the results of a comparison test conducted by Car and Driver magazine in December of 1981. The new DeLorean was tested against a prodigious array of competitors – a Porsche 911SC; Ferrari 308GTSi; Datsun 280-ZX Turbo; and a Chevrolet Corvette. In measured test data, the DeLorean ran 0 to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds; 0 to 100 mph in 35.1 seconds; the quarter mile was covered in 17 seconds at a terminal speed on 79 mph; and it reached a top speed of 120 mph. The bad news for DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) was that all of the DeLorean’s results were the slowest in the group. It was not an auspicious debut for the DeLorean and for those who could read the handwriting on the wall, the results accurately foretold the car’s short future.

Twenty-four karat gold DMC-12s

Like any company marketing a brand-new car, DeLorean Motor Company was anxious to get the DMC-12 as much publicity as possible. To that end, in cooperation with American Express, a 24-karat gold-plated DeLorean DMC-12 was featured on the cover of the American Express Christmas catalog in the early eighties. American Express and DMC were offering for sale no more than 100 gold-plated DMC-12s priced at $85,000 each – the perfect gift for those special ones on anyone’s Christmas list. Two cars were sold through this promotion, both of which were assembled at the DMC factory with gold-plated body panels substituted for the normal stainless steel panels. VIN 4300 had a manual transmission and a tan interior and was displayed at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, while DeLorean VIN 4301 had an automatic transmission and a black interior, and was put on display in the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California.

A third car was also completed at the factory using an earlier production engineering development car and replacing the stainless steel body panels with a spare set of gold-plated panels. This vehicle, VIN 20105, is in a private collection. Two other cars were gold-plated privately by their owners, making a total of five gold-plated DeLoreans.

John DeLorean’s dream

John Zachary DeLorean made his mark in the automotive world at GM’s Pontiac division. In the early sixties, chief engineer DeLorean and division general manager “Pete” Estes bent GM’s rules and put a 389 cu. in. V8 engine in the mid-sized Tempest body to create the GTO, the first muscle car. Following a dramatic increase in Pontiac sales, DeLorean became the youngest-ever GM division general manager when, at 40, he was promoted to Pontiac Division chief. His fast track through the GM hierarchy continued as he was promoted to Chevrolet Division general manager in 1969, and then became Vice President of Car and Truck Production at GM in 1971, making $650,000 per year. He was then a young, brash, flamboyant executive only one step away from the GM presidency. About a year later, the maverick DeLorean quit cold turkey and walked away from everything, saying that he found the GM atmosphere “too stifling.”

He began formulating a plan to achieve his life’s dream – to build his own car in his own factory. DeLorean had two prototypes built by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, which were unveiled to the press in the mid-seventies, but both were a long way from being production-ready. Lotus Cars and Colin Chapman were hired to re-engineer the prototypes to make a car that was ready for production. In the meantime, DeLorean signed an agreement for a $61 million commitment from the Northern Ireland Department of Commerce to build a new DeLorean automobile assembly plant in West Belfast. The re-engineering required to make the transition from prototype to production was extensive. This caused production delays and pushing the debut of the production car back into 1981, increasing the strain on DMC’s precarious financial situation. But John DeLorean, within sight of achieving his dream, was living life in the fast lane – hanging out with movie and television stars – and blindly kept pushing ahead.

The dream becomes a nightmare

Initial sales of the DMC-12 in 1981 were good, but the build quality of the first production cars was abominable. The assembly quality was so bad that DMC had to establish a quality assurance center in the United States to correct the cars as they came off the boat. Once again, the company’s financial resources took a big hit. Another blow came at the end of 1981 when U.S. sales of the DeLorean tanked and dealers precipitously reduced their car orders. Despite a £17 million loan from the British government, DMC scaled back production, laid off staff, and put the factory on a three-day work week. The sales decline continued and the company was placed in administration on February 19, 1982.

The Administrators agreed to allow production to continue if DeLorean could come up with a payment of £10 million, about $18.5 million at the time, to meet creditor obligations. Faced with a desperate need for a large amount of cash to keep his dream alive, John DeLorean made a fateful decision that under different circumstances would have been unthinkable. On October 26, 1982 John DeLorean was arrested in an FBI sting operation after putting up $1.8 million worth of DMC stock to import 100 kilos of cocaine into the United States. DeLorean’s plan was to sell the cocaine and raise the money to keep his factory alive. He was quickly out on bail, but his dream was over. DMC was wound up by the administrators and its U.S. organization was forced into bankruptcy. DeLorean successfully fought extradition to Great Britain to avoid standing trial there on a variety of charges. The British judge later commented that he would have, “liked to sentence DeLorean to 10 years for ‘barefaced, outrageous, and massive fraud’.” DeLorean’s dream died, and his fast-lane life came to a screeching halt as well.


John DeLorean finally wrapped up the last of his U.S. legal battles around 1990. He was tried on charges including drug trafficking, racketeering, breach of contract, and tax evasion, but he was never convicted. Licensing fees from the Back to the Future movies, and an animated television series and associated toy sales helped keep him financially alive as creditors, ex-partners, and government agencies doggedly pursued him through court after court.

The end came on March 3, 2005 at his estate in New Jersey when John DeLorean died from complications resulting from a stroke. He was 80 years old. It is said that he was buried in Troy, Michigan wearing a black motorcycle jacket, blue jeans, and a denim shirt, beneath a headstone featuring a DeLorean DMC-12 – a maverick to the very end.

This article uses selective affiliate links, which means a commission is earned if you make a purchase via the links. The price you pay will be the same whether you use the affiliate links or go directly to the vendor’s website using non-affiliate links. We are not responsible for the content or information use at any of those sites, and you should review each site’s privacy policy.


Car and Driver

DeLorean Motor Company



Road & Track

The Eighties Club

RMS Motoring

Photos by: Thilo Parg, BrokenSphere, SG2012, LvtalonFrank Schwichtenberg

2 thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *