The DeLorean was a huge missed opportunity | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

18th February 2022
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I’ve been to many defunct car factories and are all sad places: Romano Artioli’s once beautiful Bugatti facility still sits, fading in the Italian sunshine, at the side of a dual carriageway outside Modena. The extraordinary Packard plant where 40,000 people once worked remains in a state of irretrievable dereliction, spread over 330 square kilometres of Detroit suburbs. But none was quite so forlorn as the DeLorean factory at Dunmurry, outside Belfast.


When I think of the thousands in desperate need of employment in the dark days of the early 1980s, who came to build what they’d been told would be a world-beating supercar which turned out nothing of the sort it makes me sad. When I think of the taxpayers’ millions that were wasted, stolen and otherwise misappropriated in what the Westminster Public Accounts Committee described as ‘one of the gravest misuses of public resources’ it makes me angry.

But now, forty years after the last DeLorean was built is there anything good to have come from it, save three feelgood sci-fi movies? Well now, just maybe. Because it’s coming back, or at least the name and those doors are coming back, as Texas company DeLorean Reimagined will this year launch an electrically powered interpretation of what a modern DeLorean should be called the DeLorean EVolved. There aren’t very many more details than that, save that ItalDesign seems once again to have picked up the design work, while the nuts and bolts (or whatever pass for such things these days) could be done by Williams Advanced Engineering which has a joint venture with ItalDesign to develop an EV platform.

I look forward to seeing and, I hope, one day even driving it. But for now and while we’re on the subject I’d like to share a thought or two about the first car, the car at which so many poke fun today. Is that unfair? Having driven one I’d have to say not really. I’d once owned a 1981 Lotus Esprit so had a good idea of where the bar was set in terms of handling and performance for that kind of car in that era and the DeLorean didn’t clatter into it so much fall flat on its face some distance beneath.


The car was underpowered and overweight and that was just the start of its problems. It was a rear-engined car at a time when not even Porsche had perfected the layout, the build quality was variable at best and that stainless steel body, while remarkable, was completely impractical.

The pity is, and perhaps this is something not enough people know, is that it wasn’t always going to be like that. Although the DeLorean that came to market in 1981 looked superficially similar to the running prototype that was first fired up in 1976, it was actually a very different beast. True the unique stainless steel body with its distinctive gullwing doors remained but its engine was now mounted behind the rear axle line instead of ahead of it. Moreover the revolutionary super light and strong composite frame intended to form its structure proved unviable in a production car. DeLorean was forced to turn to Lotus to find a way of getting the car into production. Colin Chapman’s solution was for the steel panels to adhere instead to a glass-fibre underbody mounted on a steel chassis adapted from that already used by the Lotus Esprit.


It meant the DeLorean would be far heavier than intended, an impediment that could only be countered by a powerful engine. But none could be found that would fit. In the end a 2.9-litre V6 designed for big Peugeot, Renault and Volvo saloons was used. It had just 172PS (126kW) before US anti-smog equipment dropped it to 132PS (97PS). DeLorean’s original target was 203PS (147kW). Performance was lamentable: US cars couldn’t even broach the 10 second barrier for the 0-60mph run while Road & Track recorded a 0-100mph ‘sprint’ in 40 seconds, which is basically forever. 

And its soft springs served only to exacerbate the inherent shortcomings of its configuration. Pushed harder than it cared to go, its handling was stodgy at best, a million miles from that people could expect from the Esprits and Porsche 911s it was meant to rival. It really never stood a chance. A factory tooled to make 30,000 units a year closed after 21 months with fewer than 9,000 cars to stand in mute testimony to the folly and alleged fraud of its creator, John Z DeLorean.


It wasn’t all bad. The cabin was sensibly arranged with a decent driving position and comfortable seats, it rode and steered well, and perhaps with the turbo motor that was planned but never installed it might have gone well too. Those panels would never rot either. But no, there was nothing to suggest it could ever have been a success. Let’s hope the new DeLorean has EVolved in more ways than one.

Images courtesy of Bonhams.

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