Dream cars that turn into nightmares are not that uncommon in automotive history. One only has to look at the Boulevard of Broken Dreams that is the British car industry to see where we’re coming from. Few are as infamous as the DeLorean DMC-12 – because if we’re talking about cars that embody the hopes and ambitions of their creator, but which fail spectacularly, then few come close to comparing with his gullwing-doored, stainless steel-paneled sports car.
The story begins in April 1973, when John Zachary DeLorean unexpectedly resigned from his role as General Motors’ vice president of car and truck production. It was a shock move, considering he was tipped to rise to the top of the company. But following the form book was never an option for a renegade like John Z. He had risen meteorically through GM’s ranks playing the corporate game beautifully. But now, he had now outgrown his corporate strait-jacket.
John Z’s reason for leaving was simple – he wanted to set-up his own company and build the sort of car that he knew GM never would. From the very beginning, he knew exactly what he wanted, and hired GM engineering guru Bill Collins to help make it happen. Impressed by BMW, John Z decided to produce a car that would occupy a similar market slot to its CS coupé. It needed to be be very European in feel and impress aspirational buyers. Throwing a curved ball into the mix, the pair concluded that their car would have stainless steel bodywork and gullwing doors to give it requisite wow factor, and tempt buyers away from their Euro cars.
Throughout 1973 and ‘74, plans began to crystallize, and although John Z hadn’t even officially set-up his car company yet, plans were being drawn up. Cutting a deal with the Allstate Insurance Company, John Z proposed that his sports coupé could be the DeLorean Safety Vehicle (DSV-1) – and the insurance company use it to showcase the concept of a stylish safety conscious vehicle, with a view to producing it. John Z set about using the investment to produce an engineering prototype, but even before the ink on the deal had dried, Allstate lost interest, leaving the finance package in the capable hands of DeLorean.
At the end of ‘74 John Z and Collins approached Giorgetto Giugiaro, and after brief negotiations, the Italian designer commenced work on the new car’s styling. DeLorean’s parameters – along with the need for those doors and that bodywork – were that the new car needed flush fitting bumpers, exposed headlampss, a mid-engined layout, and be commodious enough for tall drivers.
In terms of power, Collins considered a Wankel engine, but neither CitroΫn nor Mazda were serious enough to supply. That led to a brief flirtation with the Ford Cologne V6, then the 2-litre CitroΫn CX engine, before settling on the PRV ‘Douvrin’ V6 late in the programme. Giugiaro originally packaged his design around the smaller power unit, and the late change caused a fundamental engineering shift. The bulkier power pack needed repositioning behind the rear axle line in order to maintain interior room (and accommodate a golf bag) that John Z insisted upon.
Work on the first running prototype was completed quickly. Body construction was an advanced composite system (Elastic Reservoir Moulding) that allowed the steel panels to be bonded on to a two-piece understructure. It was groundbreaking technology that added to the DeLorean’s desirability – so much so, that when presented to the press in October 1976, Road & Track declared the prototype a ‘sensation’. Despite not having driven it, and production remaining far off.
John Z’s car was creating a media frenzy, and he was here, there and everywhere, using his contacts, pressing the flesh, and sweet talking potential investors into parting with their cash in exchange for a stake in his company. Dealers were courted, banks were wined and dined, and industry suppliers were persuaded to climb aboard. The dream was gaining serious momentum. Finance was provided by the Bank of America, strategic partnerships, and – later on – from dealers who had been offered shares in the company.
As the prototype did the rounds seducing the press and potential dealers, the detail engineering began. The change to the Douvrin V6 had been eased by the mimicking the rear-engined Alpine-Renault A310 V6’s installation – but that was only part of the problem. A more pressing issue was where to build the DMC-12, and getting the production engineering completed.
Initially, it looked as though the DeLorean would be built in Puerto Rico, with an offer of m in grants (assisted by the US government), but delays in the project led John Z into talks with the Northern Ireland Development Agency. It was a bold move, but having charmed the Labour government, a deal worth a cool 7m was signed after brief negotiations in July 1978. The agreement was to set up a greenfield production site in Dunmurry, near Belfast – an area desperately in need of regeneration.
Having moved the focus to the UK, and with the finance in place, John Z set about building the company is readiness for production. Alongside Dunmurry, a management and purchasing center was opened in Coventry – and staff was hired to fill it to start setting up new supply deals in the UK. John Z and Colin Chapman signed a deal for Lotus to develop the DMC-12 at Hethel.
It made perfect sense – Lotus remains a respected automotive design and engineering consultancy, while Collins and John Z were both firm admirers of the Esprit, a car the DMC-12 was conceptually similar to. Despite that, Collins soon found he couldn’t work with Chapman and Lotus. It was difficult for him to watch the innovative car he designed watered down and re-engineered to comply with Lotus’ engineering principles. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and he ended up walking out.
Given that timescales for getting the car into production were tight, Lotus had little choice, though – its engineering team went for what it knew and did away with much of the original DeLorean’s underbody structure, adopting a chassis structure near-identical to the Esprit’s.
The backbone chassis was adopted, and the Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection (VARI) construction was introduced to replace the complex and costly ERM system that Collins had championed. Stainless steel panels would disguise the simpler body construction, rendering it invisible to the owner. And Lotus would receive a royalty payment on its patented system for every DMC-12 built.
Similarities with the Esprit went further – the independent suspension with front double wishbones and a rear multi-link was almost identical. No surprise, then, that it handled well (having been honed at Hethel), but the ride quality was also excellent, thanks to its relatively high ride set-up and large super-sticky tyres (that were necessarily much larger at the rear). The rack-and-pinion steering was also set-up to Lotus specification, and was quick geared to 2.65 turns from lock to lock.
Sadly, performance didn’t live up to expectations – not least because once emissions equipment were installed, the 2.8-litre V6 delivered a none-too-impressive 130bhp. All the more disappointing given the excellence of the chassis. It would go on to be the first mass-produced British car to feature a catalytic converter, though.
Despite the upheavals beneath the skin, the exterior design remained refreshingly true to the Giugiaro original. A few late styling tweaks saw some of the sharper edges smoothed off, the side window profile tidied up, and the last minute additions of electric toll-booth windows – the result of a conversation between John Z and a co-passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight who couldn’t understand why his so-called luxury car was going to have sliding windows.
By December 1979, and just over a year after setting up in the UK, Lotus began handing over the finished project for DeLorean to put the car into production. Although development wasn’t finished – and fine tuning on the road needed completing, the project moved to Ireland for the next chapter to begin...
As we have already seen, John Z DeLorean didn’t play by the rules – and was prepared to think unconventionally in order to realize his dream of getting his gullwing sports car into production. However, choosing Northern Ireland to build his car was either the act of a genius – or commercial suicide.
When DMCL in the UK was set-up in October 1978, it was effectively a start-up operation, and the prototype had been underdeveloped.To accelerate the DMC-12’s move to production, the engineering programme at Hethel had been run simultaneously with endurance testing at the company HQ in Coventry; at a time when parallel development programmes had yet to become commonplace in the industry.
In setting up car production in Northern Ireland (as opposed to Puerto Rico), new supply deals with a myriad of component suppliers in the West Midlands needed to be set-up. This placed untold pressures on the UK management team – and that wasn’t even accounting for the demands placed on it by setting up the green-field factory in strife-torn Northern Ireland.
Based in Dunmurry, near the Catholic Twinbrook Estate, the factory was perfectly placed to deal with the region’s rampant unemployment (it was as high as 50% in the Catholic areas). The factory was equidistant between large Catholic and Protestant estates. However, the work force wasn’t skilled, and would need training, and there simply wasn’t the industry infrastructure in place for a rapid build-up to production.
The workforce – a mixture of Protestant and Catholic – got on with the job and built the cars, proudly leaving religion at the factory gates. As for the cars – they were an object lesson in streamlined production methods. All of the components were brought in from outside suppliers apart from the fiberglass floorplan. This just-in-time construction also predicted subsequent industry practice.
Adding to the enormity of the task of getting production off the ground, John Z had set an impossible schedule. He’d promised the government that pilot build cars would be ready by May 1980, and a year after that, the factory would be assembling 30,000 cars per year. Despite this, John Z remained in New York, relying on his UK deputies – industry heavyweights such as Barrie Wills (purchasing director) and ex-GM man Chuck Bennington (product planning director) to get the operation running in the UK.
On January 21, 1981, eight months late and £34m over budget, the first DMC-12 rolled off the line at Dunmurry. Given the timetable, this was a remarkable achievement, even if the press gleefully reported the overspend of taxpayers’ money. It was still a rush job – the car was released to the public undercooked and lacking in build quality. Within months the factory had these issues licked...
The initial road tests were kind, though – after comparing it with the Porsche 911 and Ferrari 308 among others, Car & Driver concluded, ‘If De Lorean keeps it up, he could be the only North American besides Henry Ford to leave his mark and his name on the business.’ Given it cost ,600 compared with ,258 for the considerably faster (if much less refined) Chevrolet Corvette, it was an optimistic view, gullwing doors or not.
The chassis was impressive, even if the excessive ride height did its best to upset the overall levels of roadholding. Autocar reckoned it was biased towards understeer; Road and Track thought it rolled too much – and all thought it lacked the ultimate delicacy of its European rivals. But who really cared when it looked so striking?
Car & Driver summed in a wonderfully overblown way: ‘Let the sun blaze or the night lights sparkle and the sheen shines. And when the gullwings reach for the sky and their amber warning lights alert the neighborhood’s low-flying Learjets to a new obstacle, all the world’s air traffic controllers couldn’t channel the glut of instant onlookers.’ Quite.
Despite promising early sales, the queue of buyers had evaporated by end of year – the chill wind of recession had struck the US automotive sector, and stockpiles of unsold cars started to mount up, both in Dunmurry and dockside in the USA. The worst US winter in 50 years also didn’t help the demand for sports cars.
As DeLorean had built the company on fragile finances, there was no way DMC could weather the storm. John Z desperately tried to secure additional funding from any sources available to him, while successfully managing to top up his investment from the Conservative government.
In January 1982, production was slashed and plans were accelerated to give the DMC-12 Euro Type Approval – something that John Z originally thought wouldn’t be necessary. An emergency recovery programme headed by Barrie Wills was instigated – but it was already too late.
On February 19, the receivers were called in, and after forming DMC (1982) Ltd, continued funding limited car production while a viable rescue plan was devised. The deadline would be July 31 – John Z assumed the date would come and go, and the government would offer a bailout.
DeLorean’s head of marketing, Tom Ronayne, toured Europe sounding out potential sales outlets. The feedback from over the channel was positive – and a rescue bid was cooked up. The immediate issue was to increase demand and and start selling stockpiled cars, but beyond that, Barrie Wills’ management team did all they could to make DeLorean – as a marque – saleable.
Wills and Bennington drew up a business plan that looked solid enough for them to receive a commitment to funding from a consortium of financial backers keen to rescue DeLorean. However, on October 19, after a four-month operation, the FBI pounced on John Z in a Los Angeles hotel room for ‘narcotics violations.’ The dream came apart the moment the briefcase full of cocaine was captured on camera.
Four days later, it was over for Wills and Bennington, too. Time and money ran out, and the receivers were forced to close the company. After a run of less than two years and around 9500 cars, Barrie Wills locked the factory gates at Dunmurry for the very last time.
Did the DMC-12 deserve such a fate? Clearly, it was launched at the wrong time, was overpriced, and the company wasn’t strong enough to survive the economic downturn. However, the DMC-12 is a fascinating monument to the unique character of its creator – had anyone else attempted to build the car, it would never have made it off the drawing board. British taxpayers who stumped up the cash may have seen it differently, but John Z’s dream car deserved so much more.