DeLorean DMC-12: famous for being famous?

Automotive history Car Culture
DeLorean DMC-12 gullwing doors

This article is brought to you by LV=
The recent celebrations of ‘Back to the Future Day’, which represents the point where Marty and Doc travelled from 1990 to 21 October 2015, highlighted the ongoing interest in the trilogy’s real star – the DeLorean DMC-12.

LV= recently outlined their reasons to invest in a DeLorean, and asked The Car Expert for some comment.

By any objective standards, the DeLorean Motor Company and its only model were disastrous failures. The car’s performance was poor. Its reliability was worse. Its build quality was shameful. It was ridiculously overpriced. The company went broke, and the boss went to jail.

The car’s two most recognisable design features were both actually engineering nightmares. The stainless steel body panels are not structural and are mounted over a fibreglass body underneath, adding considerable unnecessary weight. The gullwing doors were also heavy, plus they leaked, and the windows couldn’t be wound down.

The DeLorean Motor Company’s lifespan was short. It spent more time getting off the ground than it did actually building vehicles, and then its spectacular collapse made the cars toxic from a sales point of view. By the mid-1980s, just a couple of years after production of only 9,000-odd cars was halted, the DMC-12 was well on its way to being a footnote in the annals of automotive history.

And then it became one of the great cult cars of all time.

“Are you telling me that you built a time machine out of a DeLorean?”

By the somewhat shallow reasoning that its gullwing doors and stainless steel body would make it look rather alien to a family in the 1950s, the DMC-12 was cast as the Time Machine in 1985’s smash-hit movie Back to the Future. Before you could say “space-time continuum”, the DeLorean had become the coolest car on earth to a whole generation of kids. And as kids tend not to be clued-up about industry wheelings and dealings, the controversial history of the company was of no importance. The car’s real-world rubbishness was also irrelevant, since most of its new fans were not old enough to drive anyway.

Delorean DMC-12 starring in Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd

But soon, those kids were old enough to drive. Eventually, they had solid jobs and got their lives to a point were they wanted a classic car. As we have discussed previously, classic car buyers tend to look for vehicles they loved as kids, so lots of 1970s and 1980s cars are now in demand. A few years ago, cars like the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa were relatively cheap to buy. But as Generation X has started getting into the classic car market, they have shot up in value.

“When this baby hits 88mph, you’re going to see some serious s***”

Back to the Future has only grown in popularity since 1985, as last month’s celebration of ‘Back to the Future Day’ proved. So it’s no surprise that it’s iconic star car has become a sought-after classic.

The foibles which plagued the DeLorean when new are nowhere near as important these days, partly because modern technology has overcome some of the problems and partly because no-one buys a 1980s car for its performance (or economy, or safety, or reliability) anyway.

LV= described the DeLorean’s engine as “legendary”, but clearly they must have been talking about the movie’s plutonium-powered flux capacitor. The real car’s V6 engine was a PRV (PeugeotRenaultVolvo joint venture) design, and only ended up in the car because the first three attempts at securing an engine fell through. As used in the DMC-12, the PRV engine was underpowered. However, some modern upgrades are quite easily able to make it more respectable, and if you have deeper pockets then a twin-turbo version is available to give you some real performance.

The car’s chassis development was outsourced to Lotus, which sounds like a great idea and it was. However, a last-minute change was made to jack up the ride height using longer springs. This was done to make sure the car met US bumper regulations, since the car was originally too low. Predictably, this affected the handling significantly and undid all of Lotus’s good work (plus it looked ungainly). Many owners have fitted shorter springs to bring the car back down to its original height, improving both the looks and the handling.  Other relatively simple handling upgrades are also achievable.

With over 9,000 DMC-12s originally produced and about 6,000 cars believed to still be remaining, DeLorean owners have collectively worked through many of the car’s problems, so that it’s now quite possible to tweak the car for improved performance and reliability without destroying its originality.

The styling was always the car’s biggest selling point, and all the gullwing doors in the world wouldn’t help if the car was ugly to start with. That certainly wasn’t a problem, as the design was done by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro, and is certainly much better than most early-80s cars. The clean lines still look good today, and allow the theatre of the doors to take it to another level.

Is the DeLorean a good bet for the future?

Doc Brown may insist that you should never know too much about your own future, but it’s safe to say that a DeLorean DMC-12 would be a good investment as a classic car. A key factor will be finding a car that’s in solid condition to start with. Some have had the stainless steel panels painted over, which means getting the paint stripped if you are serious about its future value.

Many cars have been converted to replicate the Back to the Future time machine. If that’s what you’re looking for, then great. However, if you don’t want that then avoid buying one that’s been used a a project for a BTTF conversion – it will have involved considerable drilling and modifications that will be expensive to undo.

The stainless steel body panels are very difficult and expensive to repair. Fortunately, there’s a company in Texas that bought up all the old stock of DeLorean parts, and apparently has enough panels and parts to last for decades. Minor repairs are still going to be more expensive than on a regular car body, though.

Like other cars that became far more famous after starring on screen, values are higher than you would objectively expect. But while this means paying more now, it’s likely that you will be well rewarded when you come around to selling later. The Aston Martin DB5 does not really deserve to be worth far more than a DB4 or DB6, but it is simply because it’s James Bond’s car of choice – first appearing in Goldfinger, popping up again from time to time and featuring most recently in both Skyfall and SPECTRE).  Likewise, the 1969 Dodge Charger is worth a lot of money because it starred in the Dukes of Hazzard, and original 1959 Cadillac Eldorado ambulances or hearses (as used in Ghostbusters) are like hen’s teeth.

DeLorean DMC-12 time machine from Back to the Future

Right-hand-drive DeLoreans are very rare; only about 20 were originally built. A very good RHD example was featured in the first series of car restoration show For the Love of Cars, and was auctioned for a record price in excess of £46,000 (including fees) in 2014. For a left-hand-drive DeLorean in reasonable condition, LV= suggests you can expect to pay anywhere from £25,000 upwards, and they’re probably right on the money.

There’s enough cars around to have a decent network of fellow enthusiasts to offer advice, but they are still rare enough that you’re highly unlikely to run into another one anytime soon. This is a happy combination for a classic car buyer, combining exclusivity with a support network. Likewise, if you want to build a movie replica, there’s plenty of people who have already done the same and will be able to give you some guidance.

As a new car, the DeLorean DMC-12 was woefully off the pace in Europe and not even that good by American standards (and American car standards in the early 1980s were not high, by any stretch of the imagination). But a classic car purchase is a very different thing, and the DeLorean still draws a crowd wherever it goes – even without the movie prop add-ons.

It doesn’t take a bolt of lightning to realise that a DeLorean is going to be a solid investment.

Stuart Masson

Stuart is the Editor of The Car Expert, which he founded in 2011, and our new sister site The Van Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the car industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

1 Comment

  1. Dodgy revi. The problems listed were largely myth. Eg: te doors didn’t leak and the door strust (anothr myth) didn’t fail to open the doors properly. Yet it hasn’t stopped these myths being accepted as fact.

    Reply

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