1981 DMC DeLorean

If you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?
by Jonathan Lopez, on April 2, 2019, 12:00

As some of the older readers out there are sure to remember, the ‘80s was chock-full of movies in which cars played a starring role. The 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine comes to mind, as does the 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance (a.k.a. Ecto-1) from Ghostbusters. And of course, any movie car list would be incomplete without at least mentioning the DeLorean from Back to the Future. That said, the story behind the DMC DeLorean extends far beyond a place of prominence in a beloved sci-fi comedy. This sports coupe is all kinds of weird, from the unpainted stainless-steel body panels, to the gull-wing doors, to the automaker’s untimely demise. Read on for all the eccentricities that make up the DMC DeLorean.

Delorean DMC 12 Exterior Styling

  • Sporty, eccentric styling
  • Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro
  • Unpainted stainless-steel body
  • Some examples finished in 24-karat gold
  • Gull-wing doors
  • Cast alloy wheels
  • Small model years

The DeLorean was the first and only model from the DeLorean Motor Company, or “DMC.” Framed as a sporty two-door coupe, the DeLorean certainly looked new and exciting when it first hit the scene in the early ‘80s, with a low-slung ride height, ultra-wide stance, wedge-like nose, and fastback rear end.

The coupe’s iconic style was penned by none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, an Italian designer working for Ital Design. For those of you who may be unaware, Giugiaro also penned such classics as the Alfa Romeo Iguana concept car, the Lotus Esprit, the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone, the Techrules Ren, and many, many others.

As for the DeLorean, the whole thing was built from brushed SS304 stainless-steel, and the body remained unpainted from the factory. This was rather unusual, but the raw steel look definitely helped the DeLorean double down on its unique aesthetic.

Through the years, a total of three examples were painted in 24-karat gold as part of a promotional deal (more on that in the History And Background section), while others were painted by their owners after they rolled off the assembly line. Further examples were used as training cars to help new workers get up to speed in the production process, and used black fiberglass bodies. However, the limited fiberglass-bodied DeLoreans were never marketed to the public,

The gull-wing doors helped to give the DeLorean a relatively exotic flavor, with an allusion to the same kind of drama expected from such wild machines as the Lamborghini Countach. However, the feature wasn’t without its drawbacks, one of which was that the doors were very heavy.

As such, the DeLorean’s doors required support from cryogenically preset torsion bars and gas-charged struts developed by Grumman Aerospace. Not exactly a cheap fix for an unnecessary (but still very cool) design feature.

The result was that the door design was rather complicated under the skin, and as such, they came with small cutout windows that could be fully rolled down, rather than full-sized windows that could not be fully rolled down.

In fact, the gull-wings called for slightly less side clearance, with just 11 inches required on either side to be fully opened.

The doors also used red and amber lights to mark their edges at night.

In the corners, the DMC DeLorean came equipped with a set of cast alloy wheels, which were staggered in terms of sizing from front to back. The pair up front were measured at 14 inches in diameter and 6 inches in width, while the rear wheels were measured at 15 inches in diameter and 8 inches in width. These rollers were originally painted grey but were later offered with a polished silver finish plus a black center cap.

While the DMC DeLorean was rather limited in terms of production, there are a few small differences to pick out across the various model years, one of which includes the hood design.

The mounting position for the radio antenna was also relocated several times, moving from its original spot in the windshield to the fender, and finally as a retractable unit under the rear induction grille.

The DeLorean’s overall length was measured at just 166 inches, which is just a few inches longer than a Honda Fit! However, thanks to its low overall height (45 inches) and comparably wide stance (73 inches), the DeLorean looks as though it has exotic proportions.

Indeed, the DMC DeLorean offers styling unlike anything else out there, and as a result, the car has a deep-rooted fanbase the world over.

DMC DeLorean Exterior dimensions

Interior Design

  • 80’s-style layout
  • boxy design
  • Rectangular gauge pod
  • Simple three-spoke steering wheel
  • Low seating position
  • Two passengers
  • black or grey upholstery
  • Standard leather, optional sheepskin
  • Left-hand drive only
  • Euro-spec conversion available through aftermarket

Step inside the DMC DeLorean and things look quite ‘80s-tastic. The dash layout is very simple, with big blocks of material and chunky design elements. Squares and rectangles can be found everywhere, from the center console to the gauge pod, the latter of which comes with basic readouts like a tachometer, speedometer, engine temperature, and fuel level.

The steering wheel is a three-spoke affair, while a line of switches can be found behind the shifter on the central tunnel. The seating position is low, while passenger capacity is capped at two with the engine bulkhead located directly behind the two seats.

Buyers got leather seats as standard but could option up to sheepskin if desired.

Standard features included all the usual suspects for a high-end sports coupe from the ‘80s, including air conditioning, an AM/FM stereo with a cassette player, power windows, power locks, a telescopic steering wheel, and privacy glass as well.

Later in the DeLorean’s production cycle (from late 1981 forward), DMC also added leather pulldown straps to the gull-wing doors to make them easier to close for shorter passengers. Driver comfort was also upped padded a bit thanks to the addition of a dead pedal, which provided a spot to rest your left foot.

Unfortunately for those fans living overseas, just 16 examples were produced with right-hand-drive, all of which were created by a conversion company in Hampshire, England. In addition to right-hand-drive, these modified DeLoreans also included a raft of unique Euro-spec upgrades, including new seatbelts, new taillight housings, new turn signals, and a few other details to help the DeLorean find a home in the overseas market.

Drivetrain And Performance

  • Very slow, even by standards in the ‘80s
  • Rear-engine, rear-wheel drive
  • 2.85-liter PRV V-6 engine
  • Aluminum engine construction
  • 130 horsepower
  • 153 pound-feet of torque
  • Five-speed manual transmission
  • Three-speed automatic
  • 0 to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds
  • 10.5 seconds to 60 with automatic
  • Top speed 110 mph
  • Turbocharged engine never released
  • Fiberglass underbody structure
  • Steel double-Y frame chassis
  • Developed by Lotus’ Colin Chapman
  • 2,712 pounds curb weight
  • 35/65 front-to-rear weight distribution
  • Four-wheel independent suspension
  • Larger rear brakes

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the DMC DeLorean was an impressive sports machine capable of blistering performance. However, the truth is this two-door coupe is woefully slow, even by the standards of its day.

Power is directed exclusively to the rear axle.

But no big deal, right? After all, the Porsche 911 gets a rear-mounted engine plus rear-wheel drive, and it’s considered a performance superstar. So what’s up with the DMC DeLorean?

Well, the problems start with the engine. It’s called the PRV V-6, and it was created as a joint project between Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo. Offered as an evolution of the 2.7-liter V-6 found in the Renault 30, a five-door hatchback, the PRV V-6 was designed and built under a special contract with DeLorean Motor Company, but it never really had the output you’d expect for a car as wild and futuristic-looking as the DeLorean.

Of course, it wasn’t without trying. Displacement was increased to 2.85 liters, or 2,849 cc’s, with a 91 mm (3.58 inch) bore and 73 mm (2.87 inch) stroke. Both the block and head were made from aluminum, and there’s a single overhead cam with two valves per cylinder.

Power was sent to the rear wheels through either a five-speed manual transmission, which was also developed by the Peugeot/Renault/Volvo partnership, or a three-speed automatic.

All told, the DMC DeLorean was not a fast car, not by any measure. The sprint from 0 to 60 mph took 9.5 seconds with the manual transmission, and a plodding 10.5 seconds with the automatic transmission. Top speed clocked in at just 110 mph.

Compared to modern cars, those numbers are Toyota Prius territory - certainly not impressive, if you ask us. However, even in the early ‘80s, the DeLorean was simply outmatched but just about every other sports car and GT car on the market. For example, the Chevrolet Corvette, which slotted in under $15,000 in 1981 (a whopping $10,000 less than the DeLorean) was equipped with a 5.7-liter V-8 doling out 190 horsepower, good enough for a run to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds. The ‘Vette could also reach an estimated top speed of 130 mph. Plop down the extra cash for the L82 model, and you’d get 230 horsepower with the Chevy.

Understandably, DMC was interested in offering a turbocharged version of the DeLorean, so the company turned to New York-based performance shop Legend Industries to explore what was possible. Legend Industries had experience making turbocharged Spiders for Fiat, and because DMC was busy dealing with other projects, the go-faster DeLorean project was subsequently outsourced.

In a bid to infuse the DeLorean with more power without killing fuel economy or creating too much turbo lag, Legend Industries added a pair of IHI RHB52 turbos and two intercoolers to the DeLorean’s standard 2.85-liter V-6. The DeLorean’s standing-quarter-mile time was decreased to just 14.7 seconds.

Those kinds of figures made the turbo DeLorean one of the quicker cars in its class, blessing it with the performance needed to best outstanding models like the Porsche 928 and Ferrari 308 on the track. DMC decided it would offer the turbo engine as a $7,500 option for the 1984 model year, but unfortunately, the company went under shortly after that and the 5,000 turbo units intended for production were never created.

As for the models that were created, each came with a fiberglass underbody structure and steel double-Y frame chassis. The bones were actually pulled from the Lotus Esprit platform, as the esteemed Colin Chapman was called upon late in the DeLorean’s development to help reengineer the vehicle.

Even with its surprisingly heavy doors, the DeLorean’s curb weight was rated at 1,230 kg (2,712 pounds), which is 328 pounds lighter than the 3,040-pound Lotus Esprit. And because of its rear-engine layout, the DeLorean was rather tail-heavy, with a 35/65 front-to-rear weight distribution.

Managing the heft was a four-wheel independent suspension setup, with coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers. This includes double wishbones in front and a multi-link in the rear.

There were also four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes, with 10-inch rotors in front and 10.5-inch rotors in the rear.

It’s interesting that DMC equipped the DeLorean with bigger brakes in the rear, but this is most likely due to the staggered wheel sizing, which placed smaller 14-inch wheels in front and larger 15-inch wheels in the rear.

Finally, DMC went with Goodyear NCT steel-belted radials for the tires.

Prices

The DMC DeLorean was manufactured in New York and assembled in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. Production lasted between 1981 and 1983. Although the exact number of units produced is a matter of debate, it’s believed that between 8,500 to 9,200 were produced.

However, after numerous delays and excessive development costs, the DeLorean finally hit production in 1981 and was tagged with an MSRP of $25,000. The optional automatic transmission added in an extra $650 to the bottom line.

In 1982, as DMC struggled to make ends meet, the DeLorean saw a price increase to $29,825. In 1983, prices were increased again to a whopping $34,000.

When the DeLorean was first announced, tons of folks lined up to buy it. Many were willing to pay well over MSRP for the coupe’s wild style, but after DMC officially went under, the excess DeLorean stock sold for half of the original price.

Competition

Datsun 280ZX

Offered as a follow-up to the hugely popular Datsun 240Z and 260Z, also known as the Fairlady Z, the S130 280ZX was a brand-new generation for the nameplate. Produced between 1978 and 1983, the Datsun 280ZX was larger and heavier than its predecessor, offered as a more luxurious grand tourer compared to the more nippy 240Z sports car. Inside, buyers could have either a two-seater layout or a 2+2 layout, while the exterior style was an evolution of the 240Z’s long, wedge-like nose aesthetic. Under the hood, the 280ZX came with an inline six-cylinder powerplant, with both naturally aspirated and turbocharged configurations on deck. Output ranged as high as 180 horsepower, all of which was sent exclusively to the rear axle.

Read our full review on the 1978-1983 Datsun 280ZX

Chevrolet Corvette

Breaking into the 1980 model year with fresh styling front to back and various lightweight components, not to mention a very attractive price tag, the C3 Chevrolet Corvette was undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. This was especially the case with the high-performance L82 model, which produced as much as 230 horsepower. Meanwhile, the standard model produced 190 horsepower, which paired with a manual transmission to send the ‘Vette to 60 mph in a little over 8 seconds.

Indeed, the C3 Chevrolet Corvette would have made for a fantastic competitor to the turbocharged DeLorean in 1984, but unfortunately, DMC went under before the matchup could become reality.

Final Thoughts

If you ever travel to Helsingborg, Sweden, you’ll have a chance to visit the Museum of Failure, self-described as “a collection of failed products and services from around the world.” Head inside, and amongst such disappointments as the Apple Newton and the Itera plastic bicycle, you’ll find a model of the DMC DeLorean.

It makes sense - after all, despite DMC’s ambition and novel stylistic approach, you’d be hard pressed to call the DeLorean a “success.” It was overpriced, slow, and short-lived.

However, in some ways, the DeLorean did in fact succeed. Not only did it provide the stylistic framework for the time machine in Back to the Future, but its undoubtedly a cult classic in the world of collectible automobiles. The DeLorean’s weirdness and over-the-top approach was no doubt part of its downfall, but it also paved the way for future cars to strike out in novel new directions. For example, it’s possible the Tesla Model X wouldn’t have its iconic “falcon doors” if it weren’t for the DeLorean.

Despite its failings, there are fans of this strange old-school automobile the world over, and that speaks volumes in terms of success.

  • Looks utterly unique
  • Gull-wing doors for the win
  • Developed by Colin Chapman
  • Very, very slow
  • Overpriced
  • Too niche to be a success

History And Background

In 1972, John DeLorean was working at General Motors and was promoted to the position of vice president of car and truck production. It was a very well-paid position that came with numerous perks and decision-making power within the auto-making behemoth, but DeLorean was growing disenfranchised with the direction that GM was headed. As such, he left and started his own car company in 1973, and thus, the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) was born.

It was called the DSV-1, or DeLorean Safety Vehicle, and it was built by William T. Collins, a former chief engineer with Pontiac.

The car was originally designed to carry a number of novel powertrain features, including a mid-mounted rotary engine. However, DMC eventually settled on a more traditional fuel-injected V-6 from Peugeot-Renault-Volvo, while the configuration was altered to a rear-mounted position.

What’s more, the chassis was originally slated to incorporate new manufacturing technology known as elastic reservoir molding, or ERM. The tech promised a number of benefits, including lower weight and lower production costs, but getting it to work at scale proved problematic, and DMC eventually scrapped the idea.

Following a number of development delays and under pressure to deliver something, DMC turned to Colin Chapman, founder at Lotus, who helped to completely re-engineered the coupe and get it ready for prime time. As such, DMC settled on proven manufacturing technology and a steel backbone chassis.

All of these restarts cost bundles of money, and word had it DMC was running out of cash. The upstart needed $175 million to build its business and develop the car, so founder John DeLorean went to celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Johnny Carson for investment.

As the DeLorean neared production, DMC settled on Northern Ireland for production.

The result of all these engineering and budget concerns was massively delayed production. The DeLorean was originally supposed to trickle off the assembly line in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1981 that DMC finally got things rolling. Additionally, the DeLorean was originally codenamed DMC-12 during development, as it was supposed to cost just $12,000 when it was finally released. However, the name was later dropped as it would go on to cost more than twice that when it finally hit the market.

Nearly ten years after DMC’s founding, the DeLorean was finally ready for the public. Unfortunately, critics were less than kind, as the coupe was priced much higher than competitors (such as the Chevrolet Corvette), and it produced far less horsepower as well. The styling was well-received, but the rest of the DeLorean was completely picked apart.

For example, DMC partnered with American Express for a Christmas promotion wherein the credit card company would sell 100 examples of the DeLorean in 24-karat plated gold, offering the shiny coupes to its gold-card members for $85,000.

Once again, the promotion ended up being a bust, with just two examples sold. One example was bought by the president of a bank in Texas and eventually ended up in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California. Meanwhile, the second was bought by a former Royal Canadian Naval Officer and ended up in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

There was also a third gold-plated DeLorean built in Columbus, Ohio, in 1983, created from spare parts scooped up after the American Express promotional deal. This third gold-plated DeLorean was given away in a Big Lots store raffle and eventually went up for sale for $250,000, but was never re-sold.

After all these setbacks, the DeLorean Motor Company met its end in the early ‘80s following a major auto industry slump.

To compound the problem, John DeLorean was arrested in 1982 on drug-trafficking charges. The FBI had a video of DeLorean talking to undercover agents about bankrolling a smuggling operation, negotiating a plan to sell some 220 pounds of cocaine. The whole thing was a setup, and it was later determined that law enforcement unfairly targeted DeLorean due to his economic vulnerability, as he needed money to prevent his car company from going under. DeLorean was eventually exonerated, but the damage was done, and DMC went bankrupt.

The remaining partially completed DeLorean models were scooped up and assembled by Consolidated International, while all the remaining parts were sold off. It was later discovered that the original DeLorean body dies were used as fishing net anchors back in Ireland.

This is especially the case for those individuals interested in a full exterior restoration, as body specialists can’t use traditional bondo or body filler with the unpainted stainless steel body. Instead, body work involves reshaping the actual metal pieces to the exact proportions of the original design - a lengthy and very difficult process to undertake.

However, this sort of thing has only underlined the niche demand for well-preserved examples of the DeLorean. In 1995, Stephen Wynne acquired the DMC trademark and the remaining parts inventory and began building new DeLoreans, as well as reproduction parts. Replicas were originally announced to cost around $100,000.

There’s also the case of DMC Texas, which announced in 2007 that it would build a new limited run of DeLoreans, equipping the modernized vehicles with a new stainless-steel frame, GPS navigation, and an upgraded engine, all of which paired to the same old-school look. Pricing was originally announced at $58,000. Later, DMC Texas said it would offer an all-electric DeLorean with 200 horsepower, a 0-to-60 mph time of 8 seconds, and a range of 70 miles, with pricing slotting in at $90,000. Unfortunately, just like the original DeLorean, these new models saw a number of delays. As of this writing, they were never actually released.

Further Reading

“Framing John DeLorean” Is The Summer Movie You Need To See

The Most Expensive DeLorean Isn’t Even A DeLorean

Nobody On Ebay Wanted This 1983 DeLorean Plated In 24K Gold

Petrolicious Reviews DeLorean DMC-12: Video

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