“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”
James Bartlett reflects upon the Irish-built DeLorean that became one of the most iconic cars in automotive and film history.
It’s hard to believe that 40 years ago – on January 21, 1981 to be exact – the first DeLorean DMC-12 rolled off the factory production line at the factory in Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast.
Yes, the famous DeLorean was an Irish-built car, and decades later, former employees still talk fondly of those chaotic days of “The Troubles”, when the jobs and security that the plant bought was, for a time at least, a near-miracle.
The factory famously closed less than two years later in a swirl of scandal, because despite a glittering launch and acres of press coverage, initial demand was underwhelming too. A poor US exchange rate and oil crisis added to financial and production problems, and eventually the British government decided to stop the spigot of support funding.
But the iconic car seems to have been with us ever since, especially after it shot to worldwide fame as the legendary time travel machine in the 1985 movie Back to the Future and its sequels.
In just the last year or so two more movies about the car, its history, and its legendary but controversial designer John Z. DeLorean hit the big screen (the Alec Baldwin starrer Framing John DeLorean, and Jason Sudeikis comedy/drama Driven).
It’s been the subject of art exhibitions and pop songs, is regularly seen in cartoons, TV shows, pop videos, commercials and other movies, and then there’s the merchandise: t-shirts, shoes, watches, iPhone covers, laptop shells, and of course endless toys.
It’s not only the most famous car in the movies, but maybe in the world (at least to people who aren’t serious petrol heads), and designers are always dreaming up new versions on their drawing boards and computer screens.
History is littered with companies that died (Mercury, Pontiac and Saturn in the last decade alone), but almost none come back from the dead, especially years later. But DeLorean did.
Uniquely, when the DeLorean factory closed its doors there was still a wealth of spare parts in storage, and in the mid-1990s Liverpool-born Stephen Wynne bought the rights to everything (blueprints, doors, seats, headlights and everything but John DeLorean’s image), and set about servicing a vibrant US-based DeLorean repair and restoration market.
There have also been many documentaries, and news reports often feature the latest zany way the car, both original and BTTF-themed, has been converted or pimped-out into something else: a boat, a golf cart, a hovercraft, a monster truck, a limo, a taxi cab, an off-road vehicle and many more.
Around 6000 of the original 9000 or so cars still remained, and having so many spare parts was a luxury in the rare car arena (though apparently the DeLorean’s left front fender is the hardest to obtain). Owner/driver clubs around the world kept the DeLorean “dream” alive too, and Wynne set up licensed garages in Southern California, Illinois and Florida.
Wynne and his DMC (now based in Humble, Texas), have been waiting close to a decade to get the government go-ahead to go back into production, albeit this time with amped up, souped up versions of the original.
Now seen as a classic car, these replica DeLoreans would be in limited production (maybe a few hundred a year), and that means certain rules wouldn’t apply to them – especially ones relating to emissions.
The first new DeLoreans might actually be electric vehicles (EVs), as in the intervening years they have become far more mainstream, and an all-electric DeLorean might fit in perfectly with higher-end, more expensive cars such as the Tesla and the partly recently-resurrected Hummer.
Back in the early 1980s, celebrities like Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr and Patrick Swayze were early owners (Carson was even an investor in the company), and a promotional gimmick saw two (or was it three?) gold-plated DeLoreans produced (one of which is at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in Cultra).
Want to own your own DeLorean now? There’s a thriving market for them on eBay, and the famous Haynes manuals book company have released the Back to the Future spoof Doc Brown’s Workshop Manual, which is all any DeLorean fan could ever want.
Alas, Doc Brown doesn’t show the inner workings of the nuclear-powered flux-capacitor, because of course then someone could make one and go back in time to invent this special Irish time machine before he does. Either way, new or used, you can drive a DeLorean up to 88mph now – if you dare!
Originally from London, James Bartlett spent five years living in Belfast before moving to Los Angeles in 2004. As a freelance journalist he writes for the LA Times, BBC, Atlas Obscura, American Way, Hemispheres, Discover Hollywood, ALTA California, The Guardian and the Belfast Telegraph, and his “Irish Movie News” column runs in several Irish-American newspapers. He is the author of two Gourmet Ghosts alternative guide books to the history, crime, ghosts and best cocktails at L.A. bars, restaurants and hotels, and his upcoming true crime book, The Alaskan Blonde, examines a sensational 1950s murder and sex scandal that begins in Fairbanks and ends with a suicide in Hollywood. He blogs at GourmetGhosts.com and can be found on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram @GourmetGhosts