The DeLorean DMC-12 is arguably the most recognisable car of all time. People stop in their tracks when they see a DMC-12; they point fingers, they smile. The DeLorean is a car that even non-car people can gush about. The distinctive shape, gull wing doors, coupled with a starring role in the Back to the Future trilogy has ensured global fame. Not bad for a lacklustre sports car that was hastily built in West Belfast, by people who had no automotive manufacturing experience.
The DMC-12 started out as the brainchild of one man – John DeLorean. A whirlwind career in the US automobile industry saw him turn round the fortunes of struggling Pontiac. Successive promotions saw him take the helm at Chevrolet, the biggest and most important marque in the General Motors (GM) stable. In 1973, at the zenith of his employment, he walked away from it all.
It’s hard to know if DeLorean had planned to set up his own car business. When he left GM, he was already set for life financially. He didn’t need to work, but his verve and thirst for all things automotive meant he immersed himself in a brand new project. By early 1974 DeLorean’s thoughts turned to developing a car of his own.
Finances for the project came from an unlikely source. The insurance giant Allstate provided funding, on the basis that the prototype was designed as a safety vehicle – a showcase for cutting edge automotive safety technology. But somewhere along the line Allstate lost interest, leaving DeLorean with the cash and free reign to do his own thing.
Freed from the need to comply with GM’s mass market mentality, DeLorean began to formulate plans to create a sports car. He had always been a man who liked finesse, flamboyance and European flair. His favourite car from his own collection was a Maserati Ghibli. Styled by Carrozzeria Ghia, the V8-powered Ghibli was penned by an emerging designer named Giorgetto Giugiaro. This would be the man who would pen the design for DeLorean’s dream machine.
DeLorean insisted on gull-wing doors, a mid-mounted engine and a cabin capable of holding two 6ft+ occupants comfortably; he also was interested in emerging composite technology and was keen to make the chassis using a process called Elastic Reservoir Moulding (ERM). Soundings were made about the possibility of a Wankel rotary engine, but Guigaro’s final design was packaged around a humble 4 cylinder power plant, plucked from the Citroen CX.
In October 1976, the car was officially unveiled to the press. They couldn’t sit in, they couldn’t drive it and, in reality, it was little more than a life-size model; but they were captivated. In early 1977, an updated prototype was rolled out which journalists could touch and feel, but driving was still off limits as DeLorean insisted it wouldn’t be representative of the final production version. Despite this, the prestigious and influential Road and Track magazine succumbed to the allure of this futuristic stainless steel clad machine and car on the front cover.
“John Z. DeLorean digs cars” they proclaimed. Such was Road and Track’s faith in DeLorean, they felt that the prototype could go into production in around a year. In a call to arms to their readership they stated “You can’t walk into a dealer and order a DeLorean sports car yet, but if you’re a prospective buyer, it’s probably not too early to be thinking about reserving space on a flight to Puerto Rico late in 1978 to watch America’s newest sports car actually roll down an assembly line.”
But it was clear that to move to full-scale production DeLorean needed more investment.