OCT 23rd 2015

Thank Frankel It's Friday ‑ Defending the DeLorean

History has a strange way of playing tricks on us. Just as Rick Blaine never said ‘Play it again Sam’ any more than Captain James T Kirk ever said ‘Beam me up, Scotty’, so has the truth about the DeLorean become obscured by time.

Revival hand signals promo

I mention this today because, as anyone who’s watched the news this week will know, this year is the 30th anniversary of the DeLorean first appearing in Back To The Future and more specifically, Wednesday was the date in the future to which the car travelled in the film’s first sequel.

What we think we know about the DeLorean is that it was a terrible car and it’s easy to see why. The car was so late it only made it to market five years after it was first shown in concept form and then, while visually similar, so radically compromised under the skin as to have abandoned entirely its revolutionary original structure because it was near enough impossible to put into production. Instead it was built up around the backbone chassis of a Lotus Esprit, but with the engine moved from its original position behind the driver to behind the rear wheels, like a Porsche 911.

Then they couldn’t find an engine that fitted properly, eventually plumping for a 2,489cc V6 designed for fat French saloons. That made sure it was gutless, while pretty much the only surviving aspect of the original design – the stainless steel body with its gullwing doors – made sure it was heavy too. Forget junior supercar performance, by the time sales began it wouldn’t have outrun a junior hot hatch of the era, like a 1.6-litre Peugeot 205GTI. And it was expensive, more expensive indeed than a brand new Porsche 911, ergo the car was rubbish.

Back to the Future Delorean DMC-12

That’s always what I thought and I went on thinking that right up to the moment a few years back when I got off my backside and went and drove one.

I am not now going to mount a spirited defence of this much maligned car and explain how, despite its weight, price, dreadful interior and inability to pull the crust off a cottage pie, this is some kind masterpiece, for that would be foolish. I seek only to set the record straight by offering a little balance and perspective.

‘The DeLorean will be forever indelibly associated with some mildly diverting but entirely frivolous 1980s film trilogy. Not only does the car deserve more than that, so too do all those who lost their livelihoods when the project failed’

So the bad stuff you know already – it’s all true and I don’t propose to dwell on it any longer. But it’s also true that if you play to the car’s strengths, it can still provide a very pleasant way of passing the time. Strengths? Yes, what history has forgotten is that it has those too.

Principally these derive from the fact the car was largely engineered by Lotus. It has wishbone suspension at the front and a multi-link arrangement at the back and you’ll find exactly the same configuration on the most sophisticated supercars today. It didn’t need to have very stiff front springs because there was no weight anywhere near the nose, with the result that it rode beautifully. Its steering is delightful too and, were you ever minded to drive the wheels off it, you’d discover it handled a sight more securely than that other rear-engined sports car of the era, the aforementioned 911. Even the engine, while not powerful, provided enough mid-range urge and a decent enough soundtrack to prick the interest of most enthusiasts.

DeLorean DMC-12

So the truth as I see it is that the DeLorean was not a bad car per se, but a fundamentally decent design that, despite all the delays, still was not ready when it went into production. Had it survived a little longer, long enough to get the 250bhp turbo motor that was always planned for it (and indeed got used in the rear engined Renault GTA and Alpine A610), its story may have been very different. But by then the game was already up, there were criminal investigations into the actions of its creators and production stopped after just over 9,000 units had rolled out the purpose built (by the British tax payer) Northern Ireland factory. The original plan was for 30,000. Per year.

It seems a shame that now the DeLorean will be forever indelibly associated with some mildly diverting but entirely frivolous 1980s film trilogy. Not only does the car deserve more than that, so too do all those who lost their livelihoods when the project failed. For all its many and manifest failings, the truth is that when I drove a DeLorean, I quite liked it.

Photography courtesy of Kevin Abato and Terabass, licenced under Creative Commons

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