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The DeLorean Was a Dud. Then ‘Back to the Future’ Made It Timeless.

John DeLorean’s attempt to rewrite automotive history may have failed spectacularly, but his road to ruin inadvertently inspired the Robert Zemeckis summer smash

Listen, we have bad news: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a fond remembrance of a famous tagline. Or, like today, it’ll be a look back at a time-traveling sports car immortalized in a Michael J. Fox movie.

John DeLorean was an arrogant man. You’d better be if you plan on changing the landscape of the American automobile industry. Starting in the 1950s, the Detroit native worked for General Motors, rising up the corporate ladder and challenging the way the company thought about its cars, including a push to develop fuel-efficient vehicles. By the early 1970s, he seemed poised to possibly take over GM, but instead he bolted. “I realized I would never be happy in the headquarters environment,” he once declared. “I wasn’t a team player.”

Soon, DeLorean, who died in 2005 at the age of 80, was gearing up to create his own car. It would look like nothing else on the American market. In the mid-1970s, he teamed up with Giorgetto Giugiaro, a brilliant Italian designer who had masterminded James Bond’s “underwater” car in The Spy Who Loved Me, wanting an automobile with a futuristic feel. The idea: Give it stainless steel and gull-wing doors that opened up instead of out. And because DeLorean had a healthy ego, of course he would name the car after himself, confident it would conquer the 1980s. 

“He envisioned a car that would be the best of everything,” Jordan Livingston, director of the documentary DeLorean — Living the Dream, told Forbes. “He wanted the best style, he wanted the [least] environmental impact, he wanted the best value for the customer, and he also wanted the best safety.”

What DeLorean ended up with was an automobile that would forever be known as “the Back to the Future car,” one of the most iconic inanimate objects in all of popular culture. 

Nowadays, if anybody thinks of the DMC DeLorean — the DMC stood for DeLorean Motor Company — it’s because of that popular trilogy of time-traveling action-comedies directed by Robert Zemeckis that starred Michael J. Fox as Marty, an average rock ‘n’ roll-loving teenager, and Christopher Lloyd as his inventor friend Doc Brown. The characters’ primary form of transportation was a souped-up DeLorean, which by the time of the first film’s release was already a pop-culture punchline. Back to the Future opened on July 3, 1985, becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year. And completely unintentionally, the film gave the DeLorean — or, to use its technical name, the DMC-12 — a weird afterlife, despite the fact that the cars were a commercial failure and the man who created them had been buried in scandal.

When Zemeckis and his old film-school buddy Bob Gale were working on the script for Back to the Future, they didn’t initially think of using a DeLorean for their time-travel vehicle. In fact, they weren’t even planning on having it be a car at all. “We wrote two drafts of Back to the Future in 1980 and 1981,” Gale recalled in 2019. “The time machine was built into an old refrigerator, and Doc had to carry it around on the back of a pickup truck.” 

But after deciding that wasn’t the most cinematic idea, they had a thought: What if the time machine was the car? It would seem obvious that the DeLorean would be an ideal choice — with its sleek, low-to-the-ground design, it looked like it could zip through time — but Zemeckis and Gale chose the vehicle, in part, because John DeLorean was in the news at the time. And not for the best of reasons.

In the summer of 1984, while the two friends were polishing the Back to the Future screenplay, DeLorean was on trial for cocaine trafficking. DeLorean had always been notorious for his vanity and ambition, seeking plastic surgery and burning through marriages to significantly younger women. (“I’ve always had a tendency to associate with women who were dramatically less educated than I,” he once coyly admitted.) He’d tried all types of flashy campaigns to sell the public on his cars in the early 1980s, including a promotional stunt in which American Express members could buy a gold-plated DeLorean. But despite financing from celebrities like Johnny Carson, his company was floundering and he was in desperate need of a cash infusion. 

As a result, in 1982, he was arrested by the FBI, charged with possession of approximately 60 pounds of cocaine as part of an alleged plan to sell the drugs. The timing of the arrest couldn’t have been worse: On the same day, his plant in Northern Ireland had closed, effectively killing his dream of keeping the DMC-12 rolling. But even more damaging to DeLorean’s reputation, he was caught on videotape holding the cocaine saying, “It’s better than gold,” which became the man’s unfortunate, unofficial catchphrase afterward.

DeLorean would be cleared of the possession charges in August 1984, his lawyers able to prove that the FBI had entrapped their client, but by that point, the DMC-12 was basically another Edsel, a grand automotive folly, having sold only about 9,000 units. Zemeckis and Gale liked the idea of having Doc’s time machine be designed by a disgraced entrepreneur with a bad-boy image, figuring, as Gale put it, that it would make the movie’s car seem “a little bit dangerous and cool.” Even so, the DMC-12 almost ended up not being the Back to the Future vehicle: Gale likes to tell the story of when Ford offered Universal, which distributed the film, $40,000 to use a Mustang instead. (Other times, he’s said the amount was $75,000.) But the producers refused: “Doc doesn’t drive a fucking Mustang,” Gale said.

The DMC-12 was remodeled for filming, not just outfitted with a flux capacitor but extra cables and wires to indicate that Doc had tinkered with the car to make it ready for time travel. But the filmmakers quickly learned what average drivers had discovered: It didn’t actually drive very well. “It was a cool-looking car, but it really wasn’t a good car,” producer Neil Canton told Caseen Gaines in his book, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy. “There’s a reason why it never really became a successful seller.” 

For one thing, the car didn’t have power steering, a problem with the engine being in the trunk. And the stainless steel exterior made it a nightmare to fix if there were dents — not to mention that it broke down a fair amount during the shoot. Plus, as Lloyd explained in We Don’t Need Roads, “It was tight and uncomfortable. Usually we had to shoot with the windows closed. One time we were in there with Einstein, Doc’s dog. He did not smell too good. … [I]t got pretty stagnant in there.” 

But none of that mattered to audiences, who embraced the DMC-12 like it was the next Millennium Falcon, dependably assisting our heroes in their perilous adventures. And like with the Falcon, part of the car’s charm was that there was something lovably impractical about it. After all, Marty’s initial incredulous reaction to seeing the car is, “Are you telling me you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” As futuristic as the DMC-12 aspired to be, its cold, boxy appearance resembled an outdated notion of what an alien spaceship might look like. By 1985, the car’s supposedly game-changing design was no longer that novel — like “It’s better than gold,” it seemed like a sad joke on DeLorean himself.

Back to the Future spawned two successful sequels, both of them prominently featuring the DMC-12 — although in 1990’s Back to the Future Part III, the plot revolved around the fact that Marty couldn’t get the car restarted in the Old West, potentially dooming his chances of ever getting back home. The DeLorean was long kaput as a business proposition — the last vehicle rolled off the assembly line in 1982 — but it became a nostalgic cinematic touchstone. Fittingly, when the 1980s-obsessed main character in Ready Player One chooses a car to drive in the virtual world, he picks Marty’s old ride. 

And although DeLorean died 15 years ago, the DMC-12 has recently experienced a surprising rebirth. In 2016, a company out of Texas that called itself the DeLorean Motor Company, although not affiliated with the original company, was cleared to manufacture replicas of the DMC-12. They even put out an ad that touched on the car’s bygone appeal — without mentioning Back to the Future for legal reasons, I’m assuming:

DeLorean’s legacy continues to be explored in films like the hybrid documentary Framing John DeLorean, but it’s fair to say that, for all his arrogance and vision, he wouldn’t be nearly as well-remembered if not for the Zemeckis blockbusters. Even the car’s designer remains shocked that the flawed DMC-12 has earned a strange immortality. “I didn’t expect that it could be picked as a movie car,” Giugiaro said in 2009. “Its unpainted look is due to the fact that DeLorean didn’t want to spend anything on painting equipment, so he went with stainless steel, but that didn’t come without problems.”

It’s hard not to see the DeLorean as a precursor to the Tesla, another environmentally-conscious vehicle aiming to outclass the competition. The connection was even more apparent when, in late 2019, Elon Musk introduced the Tesla Cybertruck, which made a lot of people think of the DMC-12. Musk admitted that Back to the Future was one of the movies that inspired the Cybertruck’s look, but he said his primary reference point was something else: James Bond’s Spy Who Loved Me car, which, of course, like the DMC-12 had been conceived by Giugiaro.

Nonetheless, the resulting Back to the Future/Cybertruck mashup videos were inevitable, and also pretty entertaining:

This wasn’t the first time Tesla aped the DeLorean: The Model X definitely flaunted some Doc Brown vibes with its unusual doors. (Sensing the connection between the two automakers, independent car designers have even proposed their own Tesla-like time-travel vehicles.) 

But whether it’s Musk or Ready Player One, we’re still living with John DeLorean’s DMC-12, the car that failed to change the world. Yet our enduring fondness for the automobile seems to be less about the actual vehicle than it is our abiding love for the film that spotlighted it.

“John DeLorean wrote us a fan letter after the [first] movie came out: ‘Thank you for keeping my dream alive,’” Gale said in 2007. “Probably half of the people who own DeLoreans today own them because they saw Back to the Future.” Like the hit Huey Lewis and the News song from the film, those DMC-12 diehards are just trying to get back in time.

More from the Ultimate Summer Movie Guide:

Tom Cruise’s ‘The Mummy’ Killed an MCU-esque Cinematic Universe Before It Ever Began

How ‘Why So Serious?’ Became This Century’s Best Summer Movie Tagline — and Then a Punchline