Johnny Carson’s DeLorean just sold for $115,000

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The DeLorean DMC-12 is one of the most recognizable collector cars in the world thanks to its fictional, on-screen achievements, but this particular car—which just sold for $115,000 on Bring a Trailer, premium included—earned its high price through real-life connections.

Owned by Johnny Carson, the beloved host of The Tonight Show from 1962–92, VIN 4523 was officially a company car assigned to Carson in recognition of his $500,000 contribution to John Z. DeLorean’s project. DeLorean told the New York Times in October of 1979 that Carson wanted to help “demonstrat[e] that free enterprise, even in this business, still works.”

1981 DeLorean DMC-12 5-Speed side profile
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Unfortunately, history would prove Carson’s investment to be misplaced, and even his own DMC-12 experience was riddled with drama. Jay Leno, Carson’s successor on The Tonight Show, remembers that on Carson’s very first outing in the DeLorean the car’s battery died on a stretch of highway. Without the battery the door locks wouldn’t operate, leaving Carson stuck inside the car. (The BaT listing notes that the air conditioning no longer works; we hope, for Carson’s sake, that the GM-sourced system was functional back in the early ’80s.)

On October 12, 1982, United Press International provided the next installment in the DMC-12 saga, this being another, more serious situation involving Carson and his ill-fated car. Though the comedian frequently drove a black Mercedes-Benz 450 SL, on the evening of February 27, 1981, he had opted for the DeLorean. After eating dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant in Burbank, California—during which, he later admitted on his show, he’d consumed “a little wine”—police stopped him for an inaccurate registration sticker. After detecting his intoxication and administering a sobriety test, they arrested Carson. The entertainer would eventually decide to plea no contest to the charges against him. General consensus held that he did so to avoid the publicity involved with a jury trial. In lieu of facing trial, Carson was required to attend a drivers’ education program and suffered a 90-day license restriction.

In 1985, the DeLorean was sold at auction and spent time on display at Ohio’s Canton Classic Car Museum before passing through the hands of several collectors. Other than changing the necessary fluids—oil, coolant, and transmission—the most recent seller only added 100 miles to the car’s odometer, which registers in total just below 8000 miles.

Carson’s DMC-12 doesn’t boast much in the way of options, but DeLorean offered customers only two avenues for choice: automatic or manual transmission, and, at launch, one of five interior colors. (DeLorean intended to offer tan, burgundy, blue, black, and grey interiors, but, per usual, things didn’t go as planned. Aside from one of the gold-plated cars, which sported a tan cabin, and this example, which boasts burgundy leather, the vast majority of DMC-12s left the factory with grey or black interiors.) Carson chose the five-speed manual and gray leather. The glovebox bears the signature of John Z. DeLorean himself.

Like all DeLoreans, this example boasts the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo 2.85-liter V-6, which made a less-than-inspiring 130 hp. (The speedometer tops out at 85 mph, which is shy even of the all-important 88 mph.) Of course, what this car lacks in many areas it makes up for in provenance. The #1-condition (Concours) value for a 1981 DMC-12 equipped with a manual ‘box is $65,800. Carson’s DeLorean, with a final price of $115K, sold for 87 percent more.

The winner of this DMC-12 can not only go back to the future, to the world of Doc Brown and the gang, but also travel back to a time when Carson’s affable, winning presence was a fixture of late evenings for millions of Americans.

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