The DeLorean DMC-12 shows us how to create a cultural icon out of abject failure
It’s more than a touch ironic that the 1985 movie Back to the Future featured a DeLorean, because by the time the DeLorean DMC-12 actually made it into production in 1981 its future had passed.
Not only was the ill-fated DeLorean DMC-12 old before its time, it also ranks right up there with the Ford Edsel as one of the auto industry’s greatest failures. The difference is that the Edsel failed only against grandiose expectations, whereas the DeLorean is the genuine article, and all the more fascinating to a strain of obtuse automotive anthropologists who are bored by beauty and care less about accomplishment and capability than the historical and cultural insights such artefacts provide.
To paraphrase Artie Shaw, the world’s greatest clarinettist and husband of Ava Gardner, the world’s most beautiful woman: ‘Success taught me nothing. I learned more from failure.’ Shaw also said: ‘Presumption is the mother of all f*ck-ups.’ And these statements were made decades before the DeLorean even existed.
John Zachary DeLorean launched his venture in 1974 with a formidable track record. He begat the 1960s muscle car movement with the Pontiac GTO and, before setting up on his own, had risen to the rank of vice-president of General Motors. Yet by 1982 his reputation would be in tatters, the company he’d founded immersed in a tangled web of legal wrangles, including allegations of money laundering and cocaine trafficking, and the short flight of his gullwinged sports car over. With a design by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign, Y-shaped backbone chassis and manufacturing development by Lotus, a unique stainless steel body and fancy gullwing doors, the DeLorean was intended as a glimpse of the future, even if the rear-mounted engine was nothing more exciting than the Peugeot/Renault/Volvo 2.8-litre V6. But with a complex series of capital-raising exercises and UK Government grants that eventually saw the company settle in strife-torn Northern Ireland with the promise of 2500 desperately needed jobs, production didn’t start until 1981.
By then the design was outdated and those who bought one found a litany of quality control problems, including doors that wouldn’t always open, windows that fell out, electrical failures, knobs falling off and a body that was nigh-impossible to keep clean. With 0-60mph in 9.6sec and a claimed 130mph flat-out, performance didn’t exactly sizzle, and handling was uninspiring. Sales in the main US target market failed to take off, and some dealers even resorted to spraying cars in a variety of colours to attract buyers.
Yet none of that matters, for the DMC-12 should be judged not as a car but as a time capsule that opens a portal into automotive history. As John DeLorean is quoted as having remarked, with unwitting foresight: ‘If Northern Ireland can build the Titanic, they can build this car.’ The DMC-12 sank even faster.
But there’s redemption too in this story, for while fewer than 50 DeLoreans were officially sold new in the UK, it’s reckoned there are now over 200 on our shores. We Brits love failure, and there’s a sect of DeLorean devotees who find the fascination of the story worth the frustration of owning one. For a car as a talking point the DeLorean ticks all the boxes. Better yet, prices are stuck in the past, too.
Take a look at DeLoreans for sale in our classifieds
At launch In 1981 the DMC-12 cost £10,674, less than half the price of a Ferrari 308GTB. It was dearer than both an Alfa GTV6 (£9850) and Porsche 924 (£9103), which delivered far more driving satisfaction and credibility.
The late ’80s Relative rarity, novelty value, ironic potential and its starring film role generated interest, with DMC-12s sometimes selling for more than when new. Canny collectors even cocooned some as ‘future collectables’. They would later realise this was not a shrewd move.
Rock bottom Values hit a low in the late 1990s and early 2000s, running through auction between £5000 and £8000. An exception was a 2300-mile car that made £14,950 in 1998. The DMC-12 made legal history in divorce proceedings as the only car to be worth less than husbands claimed in court.
Today There’s a distinction between ordinary examples and low-mileage, time-capsule cars. In 2013 when an 11,500-mile example sold for £28,600 it was a major surprise; the car had cost $20,000 in 2007. In 2012 a 326-mile Back to the Future promo car made £29,120. Generally cars above £20,000 are lower-mileage timewarp examples, with decent roadable examples from £10,000 and up. But the rarest DMC-12 of all would be a high-mileage example – no-one’s ever seen one…
Words: Dave Selby/Octane Magazine