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Why do we love the DeLorean?

John DeLorean's failed dream takes the future back

If it wasn’t for Back to the Future, would we recognize the DeLorean DMC-12? In the first film, the DeLorean’s acceleration to the magic speed of 88 miles per hour marks the moment when everything changes: Marty McFly and Doc Brown leave 1985 and land in October 21st, 2015 for the sequel’s opening scenes in the future, where we find ourselves today.

In its time, the DeLorean Motor Company was an epic failure, but its sole enduring product has earned more pop cultural cachet than any other vehicular flop of the 20th century. Out-of-business automakers Packard, Tucker, and Studebaker have nothing on the DeLorean brand power. History is made from these instances of perfect timing — and perhaps the DeLorean’s offbeat resonance had something to do with a car stumbling upon its time.

When Back to the Future was filmed in 1985, America was in the midst of a cultural shift. Reaganomics and conspicuous consumption were at a high. The computer world was coming alive. Apple introduced the concept of desktop publishing. Nintendo released its first gaming system, Michael Dell dropped out school to found his fledgling computer company, and MIT opened its media lab. DeLorean’s distinctive gull-wing architecture and stainless steel body didn’t look like the Chevy Cavaliers and Ford Escorts that dominated the roads, nor the BMW 3 Series favored by a nation of yuppies. Christopher Lloyd played Doc Brown, the kooky scientist who made it okay to be weird, brainy, and ideological — a sharp contrast to the archetype that Michael J. Fox played on television in Family Ties. "Doc" transformed the oddball DeLorean from a stainless steel-clad lemon into the iconic time machine and gave Marty McFly the confidence to "think different."

DeLorean DMC-12 brought back to life as electric car
An electric conversion, one of several in the works. (DeLorean Motor Company)

When John Z. DeLorean founded the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) in 1973, he was already a star automotive industry executive. His initial claim to fame was the Pontiac GTO, which helped break open the market for Detroit muscle. By age 44, he was running GM’s sprawling Chevrolet division. He had a fine mesh of smarts, bravado, and ego that catapulted his rise to success — not much different than your average tech entrepreneur of today. "I’ve had the dream of someday building the ultimate, obsolescent-proof car — sort of an American Rolls or Mercedes," he said in a 1974 People Magazine article. He also mentioned his dream to build an affordable $2,000 commuter car. (The DMC-12 debuted at $25,000.) DMC was surrounded by considerable hype and gloss from its prominent investor base that included Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Roger Penske, and the British government. DeLorean hired famed Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro — who was responsible for the Maserati Ghibli, the BMW M1, and the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta Speciale — to pen his company’s first and only car.

But it was not the game changer DeLorean had envisioned. In the end, a series of business missteps, production delays, and the 1970s energy crisis distorted DeLorean’s vision. The DMC-12 ended up with an underpowered engine that made less than a measly 200 horsepower and sputtered from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10 seconds. (That’s roughly the same speed as a modern Nissan Versa.) Less than 10,000 DeLorean DMC-12s were made. The company was ultimately seized by the British government after DeLorean was arrested on drug trafficking charges in 1982.

It was not the game changer DeLorean had envisioned

By the time of Back to the Future’s release in 1985, DeLorean could only dream of stumbling upon his own time machine. Though he skated out of hard prison time and was found not guilty on racketeering charges, he would never regain his business clout. In 1994, he filed a patent for a monorail that was never built. He sold watches in an effort to raise money to build DMC’s second coming, but was unsuccessful. He died in 2005.

I’ve always been curious to know what John DeLorean would make of today’s cars. Full disclosure: DeLorean is my distant cousin. I never met him, but the same uncle that secured DeLorean a job at Chrysler Corporation also got my father an engineering job at the company. What I do know about DeLorean is that he was largely self-made. His brother Chuck once told me, "We were poor. We barely had a pot to urinate in. I’m about three and he’s about four and a half wearing clothes that my mother made out of sacks to carry beans." DeLorean rose through the ranks of the traditional Detroit automotive world as a flamboyant outlier — a disruptive force who could be charming and audacious in his thinking. When he first broke out on his own, you could almost say he was the Elon Musk of his day.

But we don’t know what John would think of Tesla, or of the Google car. What we’re left with is his own car, a design that captures what it means to go back to the future.

Today, a version of the DeLorean Motor Company is up and running out of a Houston, Texas suburb that offers DMC-12 restoration, repairs, and parts. A rare mint-condition DeLorean is worth about $100,000, while a dogged-out example with one foot in the grave can be found for $5,000. Of course, thanks to the movie to which it is inexorably linked, a DeLorean will never see the grave, no matter its condition. There are even enthusiasts working on modernizing and electrifying their rolling relics.

Christopher Lloyd and the DeLorean pictures

And as you might expect, DeLorean fever has reached a new threshold on this Back to the Future Day. Stanford has modified one to drift itself. Students at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland — the town where the DMC-12 was built — imagine a different outcome for the factory: they’ve created their own version of an electric DeLorean, too. Brands are jumping on the Back to Future marketing blitz. Toyota has made a modified Toyota Tacoma pickup based on McFly’s fantasy pickup truck. 3M has made a gold-vinyl wrap, an imitation of the 24-karat gold-plated DeLorean you could buy in 1980. Verizon and Lyft are offering rides in DeLoreans around New York City.

So rest easy, John: the DeLorean DMC-12 seems to have found its place in time. There’s just something about a failed car that ends up saving the future, where all the rules are in a state of flux capacitation.