New DeLorean EV Raises the Question: What’s the Big Deal?

New DeLorean EV Raises the Question: What’s the Big Deal?

There’s no shortage of companies introducing sexy new electric GTs and sports cars, so why does the new Delorean Alpha 5 garner so much buzz? Yes there’s that movie, but I like to think it’s also because the original DeLorean DMC-12 was a groundbreaker and something of a success, even in failure.

I was about 20 when the DMC-12 came out and I recall very well what a big deal it was: We’d seen wedge-shaped dream cars before, but this one seemed to be more innovative and sophisticated. Instead of just horsepower and curvaceous sheet metal, the DMC-12 came across as the thinking person’s exotic — more BMW M1 than Lamborghini Countach

Delorean DMC-12 brochure image

The DeLorean DMC-12 conveyed a style far beyond motorheads.

DeLorean Motor Company

It looked great, inside and out; like an elevation of real cars rather than an exotic model you couldn’t imagine yourself in. Compare the Giugiaro-penned exterior styling of a DMC-12 to the Mattel-like Bricklin SV-1, or the DeLorean’s tasteful interior to kit-car vibe inside a much more expensive Countach.

That’s because DeLorean was John DeLorean, the ex-head of vehicle production at GM, who created the muscle car category with the Pontiac GTO. He also led the launch of the Chevy Vega, which — while snickered at today — was a major piece of innovation for GM.

A Delorean DMC-12 with its body off

The DMC-12 was radically new under the skin, not a sheetmetal vanity project draped over a Chevy 350 and a Turbo-Hydramatic.

Delorean Motor Company

Hailing from Detroit, Inc., John DeLorean knew that successful new car companies were unicorns and that his product had to stand out in a few simple ways: An unpainted stainless steel body that would never rust — a big deal in those days — gullwing doors that worked, a civilized V6 engine rather than a hulking big block V8 and a major emphasis on safety. The car’s roots were in a safety vehicle design exercise that was reputedly done at the behest of Allstate Insurance. His approach, which relied on clear, design-driven distinctions, could have come straight from Steve Jobs’ playbook, had he written it yet.

1981 was also a time of less utility and much more personal style in cars. Datsun Zs, Camaros, Firebirds, Mustangs, TR7s, several models of Lotus, Panteras, E Types and Corvettes were common on the road, with many on sale in showrooms. Today it’s hard to imagine that many popular cars without room for kids and kayaks. And John DeLorean himself was a style icon, much more of a salt-and-pepper haired Steve Jobs in a designer suit than an Elon Musk.

John Delorean and Cristina Ferrare pose beside a DeLorean

Hard to imagine Elon Musk in a pose like this.

DeLorean Motor Company

But the DeLorean DMC-12 was star-crossed. It cost $25,000 upon launch, about $85 grand today, and its manufacturer suggested retail price increased sharply in subsequent years, right into the jaws of a US economy suffering from 10% inflation. For that you got a car with a mere 130 horsepower from a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo 2.8 V6 in the rear, which left it lopsided in spite of engineering by Lotus. A 1981 Corvette delivered 190 HP through a familiar layout for $10,000 less from a company you knew would be around in five years. Also arriving with the DMC-12 were some of the highest gas prices ever seen to that date, topping a dollar a gallon for the first time. While the DeLorean was an efficient GT, it wasn’t enough to overcome a sour time in the US economy. 

A yard full of gray DeLorean cars

Soon after launch, the car’s bugs and the US economy’s trendlines conspired to back them up in marshalling yards.

Vince Streano, © Vince Streano/CORBIS

The first few hundred DeLorean cars were rushed to market so fast by the factory in Northern Ireland that a “reassembly” depot had to be established in the US to do major quality control work before the cars were sold. DeLorean went from engineering drawings and a bare field in Dunmurry, Ireland, to shipping cars from a brand new factory in a length of time shorter than any series production automaker has equalled since, but it showed. The automotive press was at once fawning and hating.

Sales tanked and the company started running out of cash. Changes in British politics prevented John DeLorean from going back to the UK government for additional bridge funding so he fell for a shady offer to traffic drugs to generate cash. Undercover footage of him receiving a huge suitcase of cocaine didn’t play well when aired by CBS News. He was acquitted but his name was deeply tarnished in automotive and financial circles and the game was over. As he remarked bitterly when leaving the courthouse, “would you buy a used car from me?”

A couple of years later a DMC-12 stole the show in the movie Back to the Future, doing incalculable work cementing the car in popular culture. I feel it overshadows and trivializes the real importance of what DeLorean built, but would anyone care about a new DeLorean in 2022 if it weren’t for that film?


Back to the Future was a lifeline for the DeLorean legacy but one that carried a lot of trivializing baggage. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The new De:orean Alpha5 comes from a company connected to the original primarily by post-bankruptcy assets and a long history of aftermarket support for the DMC-12 cult. (It’s a connection John DeLorean’s daughter Kat is unmoved by.) When you hear buzz around the new DeLorean, know that it comes from our durable fascination with brands that can package the future so it seems attainable and that can explain technology so it’s fashionable.

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