A name that is known for many things, with differing emphases to many people, and not just automotive history junkies. Among auto enthusiasts, particularly in North America, the name John DeLorean is associated with the Pontiac Firebird, GTO or Tempest, or maybe the Chevrolet Vega. In the case of the general public, especially in the UK, the name is much more likely to invoke his eponymous sports car, the drug allegations for which he was acquitted, or the fact he got £100m out of the British government.
The DeLorean has been in CC before and, of course, most of the story is pretty well known, with its maker’s rise from a humble background as a Chrysler, then Packard, engineer and then to Chief Engineer at Pontiac, and later, GM Division Vice President for Pontiac and eventually, Chevrolet. His last GM post was as Vice President of Car and Truck production before he resigned in 1973, aged 48. For several years, he had cultivated the image of the non-conformist in GM, dressing casually, being outspoken and even inviting Lee Iacocca to serve as best man at his second wedding.
DeLorean parted company with GM in 1973 and started his own business (the DeLorean Motor Corporation) to design and build a stainless steel bodied sports car. The original spin was that this was to be an ethical and environmentally conscious product, conceived with a Wankel rotary engine and an innovative chassis manufactured using a patented process known as elastic reservoir moulding (ERM), aiming for a lightweight construction. After a lot of technical to and fro, both the Wankel engine and the ERM were dropped for a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 and a backbone chassis similar to that used in the Lotus Esprit. Whether the chassis or the development programme with Lotus came first is unclear. With a similar production process, architecture and suspension geometry, one could be forgiven for considering the resulting car as something of a re-engined Lotus Esprit with more recent Guigiaro styling, stainless steel exterior and gullwing doors aside.
After trawling the world for a production site and investors, DeLorean ended up accepting grant assistance of almost £100M from the British government in 1978 to help fund the manufacturing, in return for 2000 jobs in Dunmurry, near Belfast, at a time when such jobs were few and far between, and the provision of jobs was seen as a factor in reducing the then on-going civil unrest. Production started in January 181 and ended in December 1982, despite the company going into administration in February 1982. In October 1982, DeLorean was charged with drug trafficking, but acquitted in 1984. The car never resumed production and DeLorean slipped into a lower profile retirement. He died in 2005.
The car was not a commercial success, obviously. In many ways, it was not a technical success either, from lacklustre performance from the 130bhp engine, strangled by emissions control systems, to the lack of opportunity to personalise the car, as the stainless finish was always the same. A Delorean stood out, but not from another DeLorean.
The distinctive car lives on, with some film roles adding to its profile and although never sold officially in Europe, it is still seen occasionally at car shows. At April’s Drive It Day event at Brooklands, there were three of them, lined up together with another government-funded project, Concorde.
Concorde needs no introduction; the world’s first and only successful supersonic passenger transport, it was built within a partnership of British and French aerospace industries, including British Aircraft Corporation (now part of BAE Systems but which has disposed its civil aviation interests to EADS), Sud-Aviation of France (now part of EADS-Airbus), and Rolls-Royce and Snecma for the engines.
Of course, it absorbed a lot of Government money, from both partners, and got very close to being cancelled more than once. Indeed, the fact it was a partnership between governments probably meant it survived. Like the DeLorean, it was not commercially successful (at least for the manufacturers, the operators made something of it eventually) and large elements of the technology have not been repeated. As a piece of engineering and as a piece of functional sculpture, however, it is probably unbeaten.
Even by three DeLoreans!