Blueprint: DeLorean DMC-12 sports car

Blueprint: DeLorean DMC-12 sports car

An icon of the 1980s, the DeLorean DMC-12 sports car was dogged by problems.

The rise and fall of the DeLorean gull-winged DMC-12 sports car is one of the great engineering soap operas of the 1980s. It had everything: from celebrities to drug busts, from wildly speculative investment with public money to a design that was destined to become a classic. Only 9,000 of the recognisable vehicles were ever made, and yet it became a movie icon – starring in the 'Back to the Future' trilogy – and a product of a decade of innovative design and economic crisis.

Brainchild of an American engineer and automobile industry executive, the car and the company behind it were named after John Zachary Delorean. By the mid-1970s, Delorean was famous for designing the Pontiac GTO, the first so-called 'muscle car', as well as the Pontiac Firebird. But the playboy entrepreneur was also bored with the way the US market was controlled by giants such as Ford, and decided to go it alone. His problem was that he needed $175m to set up a manufacturing plant, but with contributions from celebrities of the day such as Sammy Davis Jr his cause attracted interest and the project became reality.

Delorean originally planned to house his manufacturing in Puerto Rico, but eventually settled on the UK when offered a £100m grant by the Northern Ireland Development Agency (NIDA).

Due to long-term unemployment in the region, and desperate to stimulate the economy, the NIDA let their hearts rule their heads. Despite consultants rating the project as having only a one in 10 chance of success, it went ahead. It did, however, provide 2,000 jobs.

Delorean had hoped to bring the car to market at $12,000 (hence the name), but its final unit price was more than double that. This depressed expected orders from the US causing further commercial pressure.

The eventual fall of the company came about when Delorean was arrested by US government agencies on drug-trafficking charges. The allegation was that he was involved in a money-laundering scam to refinance his ailing company. In 1984 Delorean was acquitted, his defence team having established that he was a victim of entrapment, despite the car designer being caught on video supposedly referring to a briefcase full of cocaine as being 'as good as gold'.

It was all too late for Delorean, and although he tried to develop and market urban monorail schemes, he spent the rest of his career in an intricate process of damage limitation.

For the man on the street, the DMC-12 will always be the car with the 'gull-wing' door design. It seemed, however, that it was misunderstood, the common misconception being that the car needed more space to open its doors than a conventional vehicle. Although often thought to be a futuristic design fad, the doors actually needed only 27.5cm side clearance to open, a considerable saving over designs where doors are hinged vertically and open in the horizontal plane.

The major setback is that the doors are impossible to open if the car overturns, and so Delorean designed a large windscreen that can be kicked out. The DMC-12 wasn't the first car to employ such technology, being preceded by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL in the mid-1950s (among others).

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