There are plenty of cars that have achieved notoriety during their lifetimes – one only has to look at the Boulevard of Broken Dreams that is the British car industry to see where we’re coming from. However, to earn such a status in life usually involves being sub-standard on the road or synonymous with failure – and, in many ways, this is certainly the case with the most infamous cars built in the UK during the 1980s. But there’s so much more to the De Lorean DMC-12 than that.
The story begins in April 1973, when John Zachary De Lorean unexpectedly resigned from his role as General Motors’ Vice President of Car and Truck production. It was a shock move, considering he was tipped for the top of GM, but following the form book was never an option for a renegade like John Z. He had risen meteorically through GM’s ranks using his swashbuckling style to play the corporate game so well.
Generally regarded as the creator of the Pontiac GTO, he occupied an enviable position on GM’s hallowed 14th floor – but now he’d outgrown his corporate straitjacket and wanted to cut loose. He wanted to set-up his own car company and build the sort of exotic sports car that GM never would.
From the very beginning, John Z knew exactly what he wanted, and hired GM engineering guru Bill Collins to implement his plans. Impressed by BMW, John Z decided to produce a sports car to rival the CS coupe – and impress its aspirational buyers by being very European in feel. Throwing a curved ball into the mix, De Lorean stainless steel bodywork (so the car would last for years) and gullwing doors. He wanted to give the car a wow factor similar to the Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
Throughout 1973 and ’74, the plans began to crystallise, and although the De Lorean Motor Company didn’t yet officially exist, the new car was already taking shape, as was the finance to build it. Cutting a deal worth $500,000 with the Allstate Insurance Company, John Z presented his proposed sports coupe as the De Lorean Safety Vehicle (DSV-1) – and the insurance company would fund the building of a prototype with a view to taking it to production, should the demand be there. But even before the ink on the deal had dried, the insurance company lost interest, leaving the finances in the capable hands of De Lorean.
At the end of 1974 John Z and Collins approached Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, and after brief negotiations, the Italian began work on the new car’s styling. De Lorean’s parameters – along with the need for those doors and that bodywork – were that the new car needed flush-fitting bumpers, was mid-engined, and commodious enough for tall drivers (John Z was 6’5”).
Initially, a Wankel engine was considered, but neither Citroen nor Mazda were serious enough to supply in volume. Next came the Ford Cologne V6; then the 2-litre Citroen CX engine; with the engineers only switching the V6 ‘Douvrin’ PRV engine comparatively late in the programme. Given that Giugiaro had packaged his mid-engine design around Citroen’s in-line four, this caused a fundamental engineering shift – the V6 power pack needed to be repositioned behind the rear axle line to maintain interior room (and the need to fit a golf bag behind the front seats).
The body construction was an advanced – a composite system (Elastic Reservoir Moulding) that allowed the steel outer panels to be bonded to a two-piece understructure. It was a ground-breaking construction method that added desirability – so much so, that when it was presented to the press in October 1976, Road & Track magazine declared the DMC-12 a ‘sensation’. Despite not having driven it, and production remaining a long way off.
Throughout the period, John Z was here, there and everywhere – using his contacts, pressing the flesh and sweet-talking potential investors into parting with their cash in exchange for a share of the company. Dealers were courted, banks were wined and dined and industry suppliers persuaded to climb aboard – all were promised the earth. The dream was gaining momentum, and Detroit was beginning to take notice.
While the first prototype spent much of 1977 doing the rounds, seducing the press and potential dealers, a second was built. It was then that the detail engineering began – thanks to additional finance. A adapting the car to run the Douvrin V6 had been eased considerably when engineers found they could mimic the conceptually similar Alpine-Renault A310 V6’s installation.
However, a much more pressing issue was coming to light: where to build the car. Initially, the most serious offer on the table was from Puerto Rico – a $60m grant package (topped up by the US Government), and excellent location within an abandoned military base tempted John Z, but delays in the project pushed him into talks with the Northern Ireland Development Agency.
It was a bold move, and potentially fraught with danger, but having charmed the Labour Government, John Z’s deal was struck in a matter of days following an amazingly short consultation. Worth a cool $117m of taxpayer’s money, the contracts were signed in July 1978, and the project to set up a greenfield production site in Dunmurry, near Belfast, was underway.
Having moved the focus to the UK, and with the finance in place, John Z set about building the company is readiness for volume production.
Alongside the Dunmurry factory, a management and logistics centre was opened in Coventry – where staff were rapidly hired to start setting up new supply deals in the UK – while John Z and Colin Chapman signed a deal for Lotus to develop the DMC-12 to production readiness. It made perfect sense – Lotus remains a respected automotive design and engineering consultancy, and Collins and Chapman were both firm admirers of the Esprit, a car that set the dynamic benchmark in the market.
Despite that, Collins found he couldn’t work with Chapman, seeing the car he’d designed from scratch watered down and re-engineered around a partner’s engineering principles. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
Given the tight timescales, Lotus had little choice. It went for what it knew best and did away with much of the original De Lorean’s underbody, adopting a chassis structure near-identical to the Esprit’s. With nearly 200 Lotus staff working on the De Lorean project, the backbone chassis was adopted, and the Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection (VARI) method was introduced to replace the complex and costly ERM system that Collins had enthused about in 1975. Stainless steel outer panels would still adorn the exterior, so the simpler body construction would be invisible to the owner – and Lotus would receive a royalty for its patented system for every DMC-12 built.
Similarities with the Esprit went further – the all-independent suspension with front double wishbones and a rear multi-link was almost identical. No surprise, then, that it handled well (having been honed at Hethel), but the ride quality was also excellent, thanks to its relatively high ride set-up and large super-sticky tyres (that were necessarily much larger at the rear). The rack-and-pinion steering was also set-up to Lotus specification, and was quick geared to 2.65 turns from lock to lock – the perfect driver’s car set-up.
Performance didn’t live up to expectation – not least because once the emissions equipment was installed (the DMC-12 was the first British built car to feature a catalyst as standard) the 2.8-litre V6 produced a mere 130bhp.
Despite the upheavals beneath the skin, the styling remained true to the Giugiaro original. A few late tweaks saw some of the sharpest edges smoothed off, the side window profile tidied up and the last minute additions of electric toll-booth windows – the result of a conversation between John Z and a co-passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight who couldn’t understand why his so-called luxury car didn’t have electric windows.
By December 1979 and just over a year after setting up in the UK, Lotus began turning over the finished project for De Lorean to put the car into production. Although development wasn’t finished – and the fine-tuning needed completing, the project moved to Ireland…
As we have already seen, John Z De Lorean didn’t play by the rules – and was prepared to think unconventionally in order to realise his dream of getting his gullwing sports car into production. However, choosing Northern Ireland to build his car was either the act of a genius – or commercial suicide.
When DMCL in the UK was set-up in October 1978, it was effectively starting from scratch – the car was underdeveloped, and a parallel programme of development at both Hethel and Coventry would need to take place; a practice that had yet to take off in the industry. In setting up the production cars, new supply deals with a myriad of component suppliers in the West Midlands were set-up – all with the demands of setting up a brand new factory was built in strife-torn Northern Ireland running in the background.
Based in Dunmurry, near the Catholic Twinbrook Estate, the factory was perfectly placed to deal with the area’s rampant unemployment (it was as high as 50% in the catholic areas) – the location was equidistant between large catholic and protestant estates. However, the local work force wasn’t skilled and would need considerable training, while there simply wasn’t the automotive industry infrastructure in place for a quick start-up.
On top of that, John Z had set an impossible schedule to meet – he’d promised the Government that pilot built cars would be rolling off the line by May 1980, and a year after that, the factory would be producing 30,000 cars per year. Despite the enormity of the task, he remained based at the company’s New York office, relying on industry heavyweights such as Purchasing Director Barrie Wills and ex-GM man Chuck Bennington to get the operation running in the UK.
On January 21, 1981, eight months late and £34m over budget, the first DMC-12 rolled off the line at Dunmurry. It would be easy to criticise this overshoot, but given the timetable the UK team was working to, this was a remarkable achievement. Sadly, it was still a rush job – and, in a tale all too familiar in the British motor industry, the car was released to the public undercooked and lacking in quality. Within months the factory had these issues licked…
The initial road tests were kind, though – after comparing it with the Porsche 911 and Ferrari 308 among others, Car and Driver concluded, ‘If De Lorean keeps it up, he could be the only North American besides Henry Ford to leave his mark and his name on the business.’ Given it cost $25,600 compared with $16,258 for the considerably faster (if much less refined) Chevrolet Corvette, it was a frankly misguided view, gullwing doors or not.
The chassis and engineering were impressive, even if the excessive ride height did its best to upset the overall levels of lateral grip. Autocar reckoned it was biased towards understeer; Road & Track thought it rolled too much – and all thought it lacked the ultimate delicacy of its European price rivals. But who really cared when it looks so striking.
Car and Driver summed the DMC-12 up in a wonderfully overblown way: ‘Let the sun blaze or the night lights sparkle and the sheen shines. And when the gullwings reach for the sky and their amber warning lights alert the neighbourhood’s low-flying Learjets to a new obstacle, all the world’s air traffic controllers couldn’t channel the glut of instant onlookers. When they look inside, they lose all control. The Pewter grey interior should bring all special edition designers in Detroit to their knees. It looks wonderful.’ Quite…
However, storm clouds were already gathering even before production had got up to full speed. Despite promising early sales the queue of willing buyers had dried up by the end of year – the chill wind of recession had struck the US automotive sector, and stockpiles of unsold cars started to mount up, both in Dunmurry and dockside in the USA. The worst winter in 50 years also played its part.
As it was built on fragile finances, no way could DMC weather any kind of storm. John Z desperately tried to secure additional funding from any sources available to him in the USA, as well as managing to top up his investment from an unwilling Conservative Government.
In January 1982, production was slashed and the factory moved to a three-day week. Plans were accelerated to give the DMC-12 Euro Type Approval – something that John Z originally thought wouldn’t be necessary. An emergency programme headed by Barrie Wills in Coventry was instigated – but it was already too late, the money had run out.
On February 19, the receivers were called in and, after forming DMC (1982) Ltd, funded the continued development of UK-spec cars while a viable rescue plan was devised. The deadline would be 31 July – John Z assuming that the date would come and go without financial assistance, and believing that the Government would offer a bailout to avoid heavy job losses. How wrong he was…
De Lorean’s Head of Marketing, Tom Ronayne, hadn’t waited – he toured Europe hosting a marketing roadshow to sound out potential sales outlets. The feedback was positive – and, with the factory still on tick-over, but with time running out, a rescue bid was cooked up. The immediate issue was to increase demand and production at Dunmurry and start moving stockpiled cars in the USA, and that’s when Barrie Wills’ management team came up with an intriguing idea.
During the previous year, BL ceased car production at its Solihull factory, killing off the Triumph TR7/TR8 in the process. Wills and Bennington approached BL with the idea of purchasing the tooling and the rights for the sports car, and building DMC-badged TR7/TR8s in the huge and under-utilized factory in Northern Ireland. On 29 July, Austin-Rover’s Chairman, Harold Musgrove, and BL’s Commercial Director, Mark Snowdon, informed the pair that they could have the rights and tooling for a ‘commercially realistic’ price, as long as the car they produced didn’t too closely resemble the TR7/TR8.
It was a plan that could have rescued De Lorean – with the smaller re-branded cars opening up the possibility of volume production to Dunmurry. It was a plan impressive enough for Wills and Bennington to receive a commitment to funding from a consortium of financial backers – with the agreement of the receivers.
However, on 19 October, after a four-month operation in the USA, the FBI pounced on De Lorean in a Los Angeles hotel room for ‘narcotics violations.’ The dream was over thanks to a briefcase full of cocaine.
And it was over for Wills and Bennington, too. After running out of time and money, and with no chance of the British Government investing further money into the tarnished operation, the receivers were forced to close the company. After a run of less than two years and around 9500 cars, Barrie Wills locked the factory gates for the very last time.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.