Why the DeLorean DMC-12 was a star on the screen but not the road

In the series I Made a Big MistakePopSci explores mishaps and misunderstandings, in all their shame and glory.

The film Back to the Future may have debuted in 1985, but it’s still funny, sweet, and entertaining. And it will forever mark the blockbuster debut of arguably one of the most iconic movie cars in history: the DeLorean DMC-12. The DeLorean model, of course, plays a major role in the movie as the literal vehicle that drives the story.

Launched in 1981, the DeLorean (as it’s commonly called, as opposed to DMC-12) was kaput by the end of 1982. John DeLorean had been a respected engineer for General Motors before kicking off his own company, and while his vision for the vehicle appeared sound, there were several factors playing against success.

In 1982, DeLorean was arrested on drug charges; while he was later acquitted because his attorney proved entrapment, irreparable damage had been done. The company filed for bankruptcy and might have faded into one-hit wonder territory except for the massive hit that Back to the Future became. Because of the movie, DeLorean earned a spot in pop culture that remains strong nearly 30 years later. Seeing a DMC-12 on the road is rare, but it’s always a treat.

In many ways, the DeLorean was a failure. Yet that failure also became a global icon with an unmistakable silhouette. Let’s take a look at the rise and fall of this unforgettable car.  

The man behind the machine

John Zachary DeLorean was born in Detroit in 1925, the same year that Walter Percy Chrysler founded the Chrysler Corporation. The Great Depression pulled the country into a deep, dark funk that ended with the start of World War II. As a young man, DeLorean received a scholarship to the Lawrence Institute of Technology for industrial engineering, but his college career was paused when he was drafted into the US Army. After earning an honorable discharge following three years of service, he returned home to Michigan and completed his degree. Then he put it to use in jobs with Chrysler and Packard. 

In 1973, DeLorean became the youngest division chief in General Motors’ history, and he’s largely credited with managing the development of the Pontiac GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix as well as the Chevrolet Cosworth Vega. He became famous, and burned through two marriages before settling down for a time with supermodel Cristina Ferrare. The jetset lifestyle was alluring and its siren call led him down a new path. 

After leaving GM, DeLorean went rogue, eschewing the establishment to build his own sports car. According to Forbes, the British government handed over $100 million in loans and loan guarantees in exchange for building the car in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. On top of that, he cajoled private investors to lend him tens of millions of dollars more. As the entrepreneur’s dream to build “the best of the best” emerged, time was clicking by quickly, and DeLorean built the buzz in the best way he knew how: by pushing the edges of extravagance. 

“Months before the cars would be available, it was clear that DeLorean was going big,” Lily Rothman wrote for Time magazine in 2016. “For the holiday season of 1980, the American Express catalog advertised a DeLorean plated in 24-karat gold going for $85,000 (versus $20,000—about $54,000 today—for the steel version).” 

No time-travel information here. Kristin Shaw

The trail to the fall

The first DMC-12 was finally produced on January 21, 1981. Only four months later, DeLorean bought a 430-acre estate for $3.5 million, then one of the largest residential real-estate deals in New Jersey history. 

Powered by a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo 2.85-liter V6 engine generating 130 horsepower, the DMC-12 was not as powerful or as quick as some of its rivals. The steering was heavy on this stainless steel beast, and it wasn’t easy to turn. But when those gullwing doors open, anyone living in the post-Back-to-the-Future era can almost imagine a Hollywood-effect smokescreen forming. Even today, it’s magic to drive on nostalgia alone. 

Not long after the launch, quality issues plagued the company and a dip in the car market affected its sales. Within a year of its release, DeLorean’s company was in shambles and more troubles were ahead. 

On October 19, 1982, DeLorean was charged with trafficking cocaine. The FBI videotaped him in a sting operation during which DeLorean was offered roughly $24 million to sell 220 pounds of the narcotic. However, DeLorean’s lawyer argued entrapment; he intimated that it was clear the businessman was desperate to save his company and a solution was dangled in front of him. Within 30 hours, DeLorean was free and clear, acquitted of all charges. 

Unfortunately, the damage was done. 

DeLorean’s legacy

DeLorean, who died in 2005, was a brilliant engineer, and his triumphs have faded into the background as his star burned bright and then burst into flames. 

In a recent interview by Hagerty on DeLorean’s daughter, Kathryn, she reveals that her father’s airbag research in the 1970s “helped debunk Detroit manufacturers’ artificially inflated cost estimates for the technology, featured prominently in federal hearings, and helped make the bags mandatory on new vehicles.” That’s an accomplishment that has since helped save millions of lives. 

And then there’s the car’s role in pop culture, still memorable after four-plus decades. 

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly asks Dr. Emmett Brown incredulously, “Are you telling me you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” And “Doc” proceeds to explain that if he were to build a time machine, he needed to “do it with style.” Certainly, John DeLorean’s vision had that in abundance.

The DeLorean used in the film is now housed at The Petersen Museum in California. The museum’s page about this particular car explains that writer and director Robert Zemeckis and writer Robert Gale chose the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 in part because the car’s gullwing doors “made it look like an alien spaceship.” Back to the Future went on to sell $210 million in tickets in 1985, the highest-grossing movie of the year.

The car itself, however, wasn’t a great success. In fact, it was in many ways a failure. Only about 9,000 DeLoreans were built between 1981 and 1982, and just about 6,000 remain. That represents thousands more than should have been made, considering DeLorean’s funds started drying up long before production stopped. The DMC-12 was underpowered for its class, visibility out of the narrow windows was terrible, and interior quality left room for improvement. 

Yet, this wedge-shaped sports car retains a space in American culture for both its failures and triumphs as an icon. There’s one parked in a driveway not far from my house, and every time I drive by I slow down to look at it. After all, how often do you get to see a successful failure that’s also a time machine?