Car of the Week: 1981 DeLorean DMC-12

If Dave Pringle’s 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 had a flux capacitor and could actually fly, he’d be OK with that. He was actually looking for an airplane and not a car when he stumbled across one of the space age sports cars that will forever be linked to the “Back to the Future” film.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

If Dave Pringle’s 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 had a flux capacitor and could really fly, he’d be OK with that. He was actually looking for an airplane and not a car when he stumbled across one of the space age sports cars that will forever be linked to the “Back to the Future” film.

“The main reason we went up to look at this car he also had a Christen Eagle, which is a bi-wing aerobatic plane,” chuckles Pringle, a resident of Stevens Point, Wis. “I was interested in aerobatic flying and I flew aerobatic competitions for several years in that Eagle.

“We walked into a hangar and there it sat. The tires were kind of down and it was full of dirt, but it looked like a pretty neat car. We paid 15 grand for it at that time, I think, and my wife and son drove it home.”

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That was about 25 years ago, according to Pringle, and the DeLorean had a paltry 7,000 miles on the odometer at the time. Since then Pringle has added a modest 4,000-plus miles to the clock, which now reads 11,000 miles and change.

“The original tires were on it and they were getting old, so I put new tires on it — replaced them with radials and they work real well,” Pringle notes. “It was a little tricky because the tires are different sizes … The speedometer cable went out, so I replaced that. That’s about it. We haven’t driven it a whole lot.”

One thing the Pringles have decided to definitely leave original on the DeLorean is a mysterious hole in the interior at the top of the door skin on the passenger side. Dave figures it’s the size of a .22-caliber bullet, but when and how the hole got there will remain a mystery. “It may have come from inside the car, it may have come in from the other window (on the driver’s side), who knows?” he laughs. “Anyway, it’s an interesting part of the car. I didn’t notice it when we looked at it, no. But I’m going to leave it like it is. It’s a good conversation piece.”

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As far as Pringle can tell, he and his wife Carol are the car’s third owners — the title is actually in her name. The DMC-12 was originally titled in New Mexico, then wound up with a collector in Three Lakes, Wis., who didn’t spend much time in the driver’s seat. “He was an engineer of some kind and had a bunch of cars,” Pringles says. “He was getting older and just wanted to get rid of some things, so I helped him out.”

In addition to the speedometer cable and the new rubber, Pringle says he has swapped in a new fuel pump and replaced the struts on the gull-wing doors. Beyond that, he jokes that about all he does is spray it down occasionally with some household cleaner. “You can use the same cleaner you use on your refrigerator doors. Just wipe it off and it’s clean.”

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A Story Made for Hollywood

The short, crazy and colorful history of the DeLorean and its originator were featured in the recently released film “Framing John DeLorean,” and indeed, it is a real life tale of big dreams, big money and big problems that only Hollywood could dream up.

Built in Northern Ireland, the highly publicized but short-lived stainless-steel DeLorean sports car was the brainchild of one man who established an impressive track record in the American auto industry. John Z. DeLorean, the son of a Detroit autoworker, attended Lawrence Institute of Technology and received a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1952, after earning his masters degree in automobile engineering from the Chrysler Institute, DeLorean went to work as Packard’s head of research and development. His brilliant career at General Motors began four years later, starting in Pontiac’s advanced engineering department. DeLorean played major roles in creating the innovative 1961 Tempest and its overhead-cam six-cylinder engine, as well as the first Pontiac GTO.

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DeLorean went on to become general manager of Pontiac and brought such cars as the Firebird, Trans Am and 1969 Grand Prix into existence. In 1969, as general manager of Chevrolet, he turned to development of the Vega subcompact. Three years later he was promoted to vice president in charge of GM’s domestic car and truck group.

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In 1973, DeLorean left GM and set out to build his own car company — and an elite car bearing his personal stamp. Early in 1974, he formed the John Z. DeLorean Corporation, followed by the DeLorean Motor Car Company as a subsidiary. Then came a series of complicated financial maneuvers to raise capital and to establish production capability. DeLorean attracted millions of dollars from investors, including talk show icon Johnny Carson. The search for a factory location took DeLorean to Western Europe, Puerto Rico and, finally, in 1978, to Northern Ireland. There, the British government offered to provide loans and tax breaks in hopes of generating jobs in an impoverished section of West Belfast.

Initial designs began to evolve in 1973. A non-driving mockup of the DMC-12 was produced by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italy Design Studios in July 1975. The first running prototype appeared in October 1976, powered by a 2.8-liter Citroen four that quickly proved unacceptable. The production 2.8-liter overhead-cam V-6 had been used successfully in Peugeots, Renaults, and Volvos. Delivery of production models was promised for June 1979, amid lots of publicity. Not until April 1981, however, was production actually underway. Most of the 345 U.S. dealers had no cars to sell until July of that year. The sticker price for the 1981 version rose a bit above the $25,000 projection, and by 1982 climbed to nearly $30,000. Critics faulted both the design and performance, and with sales sluggish dealer asking prices soon fell. The 1982 model incorporated a number of significant detail improvements, but they were not enough change public perception, or the disappointing sales trend.

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Weak sales weren’t the only problem. Before long, a tangled web of fancy corporate footwork came to light. During the winter of 1982, the British House of Commons became concerned about protecting its $138 million investment. An investigation led to the company being placed in receivership with creditors owned more than $70 million. A search for a new buyer was unsuccessful, and on Oct. 18, 1982 the British government announced it would close the business. Hours later, DeLorean was arrested at the Los Angeles airport by the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice and charged with nine counts of racketeering and drug trafficking. According to the Justice Department, the 57-year-old automaker had become involved in a scheme to import 220 lbs. of cocaine in an effort to salvage his failing car company.

DeLorean was eventually found innocent of drug charges and after 4 years of legal battles was acquitted in December of 1986 on criminal fraud charges. He agreed to pay creditors $9.4 million of the more than $80 million the British government claimed he owed in the end. DeLorean died in 2005 at the age of 80. On his tombstone is a picture of a DeLorean sports car.

More than a movie star

For all its alleged faults, the DeLorean DMC-12 is still an undoubtedly compelling car and plenty of fun to own. With its rear-mounted engine, gullwing doors, low, stealthy profile, and stainless-steel finish, there was simply nothing else quite like it on American roadways.

When it arrived in 1981, the DeLorean carried a retail price of about $25,000 — plus $650 if you wanted an automatic transmission. By the time the final cars had made it to car lots in 1983, that price was closer to $34,000, although you could get them for far less than that after the company began to collapse financially. The first year of production, 1981, was by far the most successful in terms of numbers. A total of 7,409 were reportedly built for ’81 out of the roughly 9,000 that were assembled in all.

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The DMC-12’s four-wheel independent suspension used coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers. Much like the doors fitted to the Lamborghini Countach, the DeLorean doors had small cutout windows similar to the Lamborghini Countach. The shorter door panels prevented the full-sized windows from being retractable. The cars came with cast alloy wheels — 14 x 6 inches on the front and 15 x 8 inches in the rear. The rims were fitted with Goodyear NCT steel-belted radials.

The automatic transmission was one of only two options available on the cars. The other was a choice of a gray of black interior. Standard features included: leather seats; AM/FM radio with cassette, air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; a rear window defogger, tinted glass, intermittent wipers, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, and body side moldings. There were a few goodies available through dealers as well, including a luggage rack and black body striping.

For collectors, the DeLoreans have one endearing and enduring feature: they never rust. Leave them sit for years — and more than a few have — and the car will never need a repaint and or any bodywork.

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Pringle certainly isn’t planning to do any restoration work — cosmetic or otherwise — on his low-mile DMC-12. He figures the car is just right the way it is, bullet hole and all. “You don’t really need to. I don’t know why you would want to [restore it],” he says. “I would imagine it’s appreciating, but I haven’t seen any recent valuations. I bought it to drive it and have fun with it. I haven’t driven it a lot, but I’m not trying to be too careful. We drive it for fun locally, then put it to bed in the winter.

“It’s a sports car. It’s very responsive. You can over-steer if you’re not careful. But once you get used to it … you’re fine. I have a ’52 Olds, and when you turn the steering wheel, you have to wait a while for it to turn. This one is different. It corners very nice, because it’s so low. It’s not a real fast car, but it’s very responsive.”

Pringle cautions any would-be DeLorean DMC owners that they will never be able to travel in such a car in anonymity. He gets greeted and shouted at constantly on the road, and any stops are sure to open up a conversation with a stranger. “Geez, it’s almost too much,” he says. “Gas stations are terrible [laughs]. Everybody wants to take pictures and talk about the car. And a lot of people remember Back to the Future and the flux capacitor … It gets a lot of attention any time we take it out.”

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