Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12

| 29 Nov 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12

Why you’d want a DeLorean DMC-12

General Motors’ golden boy John Zachary DeLorean was its youngest-ever senior vice president and tipped for the top, when in 1973 he abruptly quit, saying he wanted to free himself from big corporation reticence and build a radical “ethical sports car”.

He then horrified his former colleagues by publishing a book exposing a failing bureaucratic dinosaur, before raising millions to bring his dream to reality, in the form of the DeLorean DMC-12 (technically it’s ‘De Lorean’ rather than one word, but we’ll go with the majority here).

His most inspired choice was picking Giorgetto Giugiaro to style the car: 37 years after it was first revealed, it still looks fresh. 

But the prototype had a Citroën ‘four’ (a Wankel was proposed) in a foam-filled glassfibre sandwich monocoque, clad with stainless-steel panels. On his own in the real world, without an army of advisers, DeLorean’s irrational characteristics began to show.

He played hardball over where the cars would be built, pitting Ireland against Puerto Rico before the British government – desperate to generate hope in Northern Ireland during The Troubles – offered him millions to build the cars in a new factory in the heart of the Catholic and Protestant communities, drawing staff from both.

DeLorean was an angel to thousands who’d had no hope of work, but he dragged Colin Chapman of Lotus, who he had turned to for production expertise, down with him.

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
(l-r) Esprit-like backbone chassis, with 2.8-litre V6 in rear vee, plus fuel tank and radiator in the front; ad promised ‘superb standard of service’

Weather, the economy and his own spin turned against him, then the last straw was DeLorean’s arrest for drug trafficking – some said he would stop at nothing to save his faithful Belfast workforce – and, by the time he had been let off, the factory and the car had gone.

Before all that, however, Lotus had turned the ill-handling, gutless prototype into a competent GT with a backbone chassis, ‘Douvrin’ V6 and gearbox turned around and rear-mounted, plus a vacuum-assisted, resin-injected GRP punt on which the stainless panels could be hung. Plastic front and rear bumpers took small knocks.

Early cars had to be stripped and reassembled on arrival in the USA, emissions equipment sapped power, gullwing doors were tricky to fit and sales soon slowed.

But the DMC-12 – named after its target price of $12,000, which doubled – remains a stunning-looking, practical and reliable coupé, whose rather famous movie role in the Back to the Future trilogy, added to the incredible story of its conception and birth, makes it a true icon.  

Virtually all were sold new to the USA. Only a few right-hookers were built or converted, but there are now about 250 cars in the UK. 

Images: Tony Baker


DeLorean DMC-12: what to look for

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12

Bodywork

See above for trouble spots

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12

Engine

Given basic servicing, the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo ‘Douvrin’ V6 engine is capable of 300,000 miles – yet most DeLoreans are low mileage. Fuel blockages, brittle plastic injector pipes, failed or corroded electrical sensors and neglected servicing are the most likely worries. Tuning upgrades can release more power, at a price.

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12

Suspension

US regs had the front jacked up an inch: lowering it gives better handling and stance (this car is standard). Bottom balljoints are weak; club has new ones.

Gearbox

About half the DMC-12s have robust five-speed manual gearbox, the rest the three-speed auto. Five-speed is high geared and economical on motorways.

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12

Electrics

Many cars have had little use, which tends to cause electrical issues due to oxidation of terminals. This fuse and relay panel is behind right-hand seat.

Radiator

Original radiator should be replaced (this is an upgraded one); modern fans give better cooling and draw less power. Check plastic header tank for cracks too.

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12

Interior

Black hide was standard at first, then (cooler) grey took over. Console boasts leather, too. Seats (manually operated, so no electrical flaws) wear on bolsters.

Cracks in dash, from glovebox corners and on binnacle, are common in cars from hot US states; 85mph speedo was law in US; 170mph items are available.


DeLorean DMC-12: on the road

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
Lotus-honed chassis gives fine handling and supple ride

When Car and Driver tested the DeLorean in late ’81, it concluded it was the executive sports car, even with unpredictable handling on bumpy roads and performance down on rivals, consoling itself with the promised twin-turbo.

The prototype recorded 0-60mph in 5.8 secs and c145mph top speed, but never entered production. Uprating the standard engine to European Volvo spec should be adequate for most drivers. The DMC-12 comes into its own on open roads, with high gearing and good economy – and less embarrassment from its considerable width. 

The Renault-derived engines and transmissions are generally strong and few DeLoreans have covered significant mileages – sub-30,000 is still common Stateside. Problems are more likely to derive from lack of use, including fuel-line blockages and electronic sensor failures.

Thanks to Lotus, the 35:65% weight distribution was well controlled; only hooligan driving results in a spin. Wayward suspension is usually due to lower front balljoints, but check bushes, trailing-arm bolts and for rust damage. A new shaft and joints can cure sloppy or stiff steering.

Quality tyres are important for good handling; the fronts are 195/60x14 on 6in wheels; rears are 235/60x15 on 8in rims. See that the space-saver spare and toolkit are in the front compartment. Early cars have a separate fuel-filler flap and two grooves in the bonnet, mid-production just the grooves and late ones have a smooth bonnet. 

The DMC-12 was complex for its time, with electronic fuel injection, plus electric windows, mirrors and central locking: check they all work.


DeLorean DMC-12 price guide

  • Show/rebuilt: £35,000+
  • Average: £25,000
  • Restoration: £18,000

DeLorean DMC-12 history

1974 Oct Ex-Pontiac chief engineer Bill Collins starts to plan the DeLorean sports car

1975 Giugiaro styles the DeLorean

1976-7 Two prototypes built; second has PRV V6

1978 Deal with Northern Ireland Development Board to build cars at Dunmurry, Belfast

1979 Lotus designs Esprit-style backbone chassis

1981 Jan First DMC-12 completed at Dunmurry

1981 Apr Initial shipment to the United States

1981 Grey replaces black interior; two 24-carat gold-plated cars built for AmEx Gold Card PR

1982 11 manual and one auto converted to RHD by Wooler-Hodec; factory goes into receivership

1982 Oct John DeLorean arrested in cocaine deal

1983 Three RHD built, UK-spec non-cat, special rear lights; a few LHD made to similar spec; third gold-clad DMC-12 made; factory managers plan to assemble TR7/8 as DeLorean’s firm collapses

1984 Aug John DeLorean acquitted of smuggling

2000s DeLorean Motor Co of Texas builds a few ‘new’ upgraded DeLoreans on stainless chassis

2011 Oct New all-electric DeLorean unveiled


The owner’s view

“I grew up on Back to the Future films,” admits DeLorean Owners’ Club secretary Chris Williams, “but I fell in love with the car when I bought one 17 years ago. It’s such a unique vehicle: timeless design, stainless body, fun to drive, easy to maintain. I did lots of work on my first one to bring it up to Volvo 170bhp spec, but I sold it when this car came up. I’m keeping this one standard, apart from upgraded brake lines, convex door mirrors, plus uprated radiator and fans.

“It was re-imported in ’89 and was a prize in the Daily Mirror when Back to the Future 2 came out. It had been stored, dismantled, for 14 years, but just needed reassembly and the fuel lines cleaned out. It’s nonsense that fingerprints are impossible to clean: I use Windolene and a Scotchbrite pad.”


Also consider

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
Lotus Esprit (left) and Pontiac Fiero are alternative buys

LOTUS ESPRIT S2.2/3

With 160bhp from 2.2 engine in a galvanised chassis from May ’80, the Esprit scored two big points over the De Lorean. Less practical, much sportier, but built in penny numbers in comparison. 

Sold 1980-’87 • No. built 855 • Mpg 18-28 • 0-60mph 6.5 secs • Top speed 135mph • Price new £13,513 (S3, 1981) • Price now £8-20,000+


PONTIAC FIERO

As the DMC-12 failed, GM launched the Fiero with mid-mounted 2.5 ‘four’ (later 2.8 V6) and plastic panels. Despite unexciting handling and performance, it sold well (proving DeLorean right).

Sold 1983-’88 • No. built 370,168 • Mpg 25-40 • 0-60mph 10.6-8.6 secs • Top speed 97-112mph • Price new $7999 (c£5700, ’84) • Price now £1000-5000


DeLorean DMC-12: the Classic & Sports Car verdict

Classic & Sports Car – Buyer’s guide: DeLorean DMC-12
American-spec version isn’t that quick but can be uprated to European tune, although 88mph should easily be within reach on a decent straight stretch

Given the movie superstardom and against-all-odds gestation, DeLoreans would be desirable even if they were awful. The fact that they are pleasant to drive, easy to maintain, eminently usable and often boast low mileage makes them a sound purchase – with prices already rising and sure to go higher. Even parts supply and specialist support is excellent: buy now! 

FOR

  • Timeless Giugiaro styling
  • Attention-grabber everywhere it goes
  • Bulletproof engine and transmission
  • Usable, practical grand tourer
     

AGAINST

  • Strictly two-seater
  • Performance doesn’t match the looks
  • Not for shrinking violets – the inevitable crowds and wisecracks won’t suit everyone

DeLorean DMC-12 specifications

  • Sold/number built 1981-’84/c8000
  • Construction steel backbone chassis, glassfibre bodyshell, stainless-steel panels
  • Engine rear-mounted, sohc-per-bank 2849cc V6, with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection; 130bhp @ 5500rpm-156bhp @ 5750rpm; 162lb ft @ 2750rpm-173lb ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission Renault UN1 five-speed manual or three-speed auto, driving rear wheels
  • Suspension: front double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear double radius arms and transverse links; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion, 3.2 turns lock-to-lock 
  • Brakes discs, 10in front, 101/2in rear, with servo
  • Length 14ft (4267mm)
  • Width 6ft 61/4in (1990mm)
  • Height 3ft 9in (1140mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 103/4in (2408mm)
  • Weight 2840lb (1288kg)
  • Mpg 20-30
  • 0-60mph 10.5-8 secs
  • Top speed 109-135mph
  • Price new $26,175 (c£13,000, 1981)

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