The first DMC-12 DeLorean sports car was produced on Jan. 21, 1981. This futuristic automobile is best known for its appearance in the Back to The Future films. With a stainless-steel finish, gull-wing doors, and futuristic look, the DeLorean was perfect for this time-traveling franchise. But what the movies certainly don’t tell us is that the car’s financial failure turned its inventor, John DeLorean, from a highly successful automaker into a man desperate man willing to save his company by any means possible.
Before launching his own car business, DeLorean made his mark working for other automakers. He was responsible for the Pontiac GTO, which was the first muscle car of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it nearly didn’t make it to production. DeLorean was the chief engineer of Pontiac in the early 1960s when he installed a Bonneville’s 389-cubic-inch V8 engine into a Tempest, creating a powerful and torquey vehicle.
Dubbed the Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO, DeLorean had to find a loophole to get approval for the project; GM did not allow engineers to put big engines in smaller vehicles in order to make them faster. DeLorean got around the rule by making the larger engine an option on the 1964 Tempest. At the time, GTO coupes cost $2,852, while convertibles were $3,081—significantly less than what his future DMC-12 DeLorean would cost. During the first year of production, Pontiac sold a whopping 32,000 GTOs, proving people wanted more raw power in their cars. Unfortunately, DeLorean failed to put the same kind of power in the DMC-12 many years later.
Riding In Style
After the success of the GTO, DeLorean realized the value of style when it came to transportation. He understood that consumers wanted vehicles that were more than merely functional. During his time as General Manager of GM’s Pontiac Motor Division, he was part of the team responsible for the Pontiac Firebird and Firebird Trans Am—the iconic car in the 1977 film, Smokey and the Bandit. It became history’s most famous Pontiac Trans Am, driven by Burt Reynolds.
By the late ‘60s, DeLorean also started making a personal transformation. He previously had a clean-cut, upstanding image to conform to standards expected of GM executives. But after he developed the GTO, he started embracing a more Hollywood-type lifestyle. He divorced his wife of 14 years in 1968 and traveled more frequently to the west coast, where he socialized with celebrities. He dated a slew of models and stars, including Ursula Andress, who played Bond girl, Honey Ryder, in the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Andress became a major sex symbol, and her appearance in the 1962 film was voted number one in a British survey of “The 100 Greatest Sexy Moments.”
DeLorean also dated other beautiful stars, including actress Raquel Welch, singer, dancer, and actress Joey Heatherton, and Frank Sinatra’s youngest daughter, Tina. In 1969, DeLorean, 44, married Kelly Harmon, 20, sister of NCIS actor, Mark Harmon and daughter of former college football star and sportscaster, Tom Harmon. DeLorean was living the high life.
Driving with the Hollywood Stars
In 1973, DeLorean resigned from GM due to creative differences. His second marriage didn’t last, and he went on to marry 23-year-old supermodel, Cristina Ferrare. His focus shifted to building a car with safety and durability in mind, versus the sleek and flashy features. He enlisted the help of Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, known for vehicles such as the Lotus Esprit and the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone. Due to his Hollywood connections, DeLorean was able to raise money for his company, DMC DeLorean, through Hollywood stars such as Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis, Jr.
DeLorean set up his factory in Northern Ireland. It took just over two years to build the facility and start production on his DMC-12. DeLorean was required to produce a set number of vehicles in order to raise the stock offering, so he doubled his initial number not knowing sales would fall short of expectations. Only half of the approximately 7,000 vehicles were sold by February 1982.
While people loved the look of his DMC-12, they didn’t like its lack of power, mediocre handling, and less-than impressive fuel efficiency and safety features. In addition, the gull-wing doors didn’t always function properly, and it was too easy to leave fingerprints on the stainless-steel finish. Plus, it cost nearly $25,000! It simply didn’t perform or resonate like his GTO or Firebird.
DeLorean claimed he had 30,000 orders for the car. In reality, the company ended up producing around 9,000 DMC-12s, and consumers bought only 6,000 of them. Deeply in debt, DeLorean turned to other methods to earn money to keep his company afloat.
From Driving to Drugs
Unfortunately, DeLorean was unable to secure financing to prevent liquidation. In October 1982, he was arrested through an FBI sting operation for planning to sell 220 pounds of cocaine valued at $24 million. One week later, DMC DeLorean filed for bankruptcy.
During his trial, it was revealed that a paid FBI informant had offered DeLorean the drugs and promised to come up with the money if the car company was used as collateral. While DeLorean had the intention to sell the cocaine, he never actually had it in his possession. Also, he never planned to actually pay for the drugs.
As a result, DeLorean was acquitted of all charges.
Over time, DeLorean’s legal issues mounted (and involved embezzling $72 million), and he eventually went bankrupt. As a result, he was forced to sell his 434-acre New Jersey estate. Donald Trump purchased the estate and turned it into the Trump National Golf Club.
Unfortunately, DeLorean’s personal life also suffered after his company failed, and he was acquitted of drug charges. His model wife took their two children and left him. However, he married again and lived to age 80, passing away from stroke complications. But his last days were far from decadent. Prior to his death, he was living in a one-bedroom apartment with his fourth wife.
Back to the Future (and Present) of the DeLorean
Had he held on to his company, DeLorean may have been able to recoup some of his losses. In 1997, Stephen Wynne purchased the DeLorean inventory and resurrected the company using over four million leftover parts. The company doesn’t currently build any new cars, although Wynne wants to, it refurbishes vehicles to like-new condition.
Wynne told CNN in 2019, “DeLoreans have gone up so much in value recently. We sell DeLoreans that are worth having, cosmetically nice, mechanically nice. And they go for about between $50,000 and $60,000. I’ll spend about 25 to 30 grand on each to get them to that standard.”
Meanwhile, over the past several years Wynne has been trying to get permission to build new models. However, the federal government has been slow to create legislation that will let people, like Wynne, build low-production replica vehicles. If you’re looking for a brand-new DeLorean, you may have to wait a while!Are you a Back to the Future fan just itching for more behind-the-scenes movie content? Ripley’s exhibit collection is actually home to one other form of futuristic transportation—Marty McFly’s hoverboard! Take off to an Odditorium near you to see other pop culture artifacts like this iconic Hollywood prop.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com