Pick of the Week: Johnny Carson’s 1981 DeLorean

Hagerty Marketplace

Tony Ierardi knows a thing or two about celebrity cars, having restored the iconic Countach from Cannonball Run for his friend Jeff Ippoliti. Now Ierardi and his team at DeLorean Motor Company in Orlando are back in the collector-car spotlight with their latest project, a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 that once belonged to Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson.

The car, available on Hagerty Marketplace, is the first of two company DMC-12s that John Z. DeLorean shipped to Carson in appreciation for his $500,000 investment in DeLorean’s automaking venture. This one (VIN SCEDT26T8BD002439, generally referred to as 2439) is notable because Carson accidentally locked himself inside it shortly after it was delivered to his California home. (His second DeLorean, VIN 4523, made headlines when Carson was pulled over while driving it in 1982 and charged with drunken driving. That DMC sold for $115,000 on Bring a Trailer almost three years ago.)

Ierardi, who owns one of three official Classic DeLorean sales and service centers in the U.S. (the others are located in Texas and California), has owned five Lamborghini Countachs in his life, but he fell in love with DeLoreans at an early age, years before the car became a time-traveling legend in 1985’s Back to the Future.

“When the first one came out, I was 12. For me it wasn’t about sports and girls, it was about this cool car. I always dreamed of owning one,” Ierardi says. “I know they say don’t meet your heroes, but meeting the DeLorean has been a great experience. The movie was great and brought a lot of attention to the car, but I already loved it before that. It was always about the car.”

Johnny Carson 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 engine
Hagerty Marketplace

This particular car was one of those “special” DeLoreans on Ierardi’s list. It all started when he joined the DeLorean Owners Association in 1990; four years later, Ierardi bought his first DMC-12. In 2003, after meeting DeLorean Motor Company CEO Stephen Wynne, who purchased DeLorean’s entire stockpile of parts and resurrected the company name in the mid-1990s, Ierardi opened the Florida location of DMC in January 2005. His shop is not affiliated with the original car company started by John Z. Delorean.

“We’ve been buying and selling DeLoreans for almost 19 years, and we have a VIN list of what we consider special cars,” Ierardi says. “This one was actually auctioned through a heavy construction equipment site (Vantage Auctions Inc.), and the guy who won it kind of threw out the idea that since he had two DeLoreans he’d be willing to part with one. So, when we saw the VIN and realized it was the first Carson car, we offered to buy it directly from the auction company ourselves.”

Tony I car restorer
Ierardi opened the Florida location of DeLorean Motor Company in January 2005. Courtesy Tony Ierardi

The deal was done on September 19, 2022, and Ierardi and his team were in a quandary about their next move.

“We knew it deserved a restoration, but we were trying to decide: Should we sell it as-is and let someone else restore it, or restore it ourselves? So we worked on it in between jobs for six months, then we kind of changed gears and said, ‘Let’s do it all.’”

Engineered in part by Lotus, with an angular form styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, this particular DMC-12 was completed at the DeLorean Motor Company plant in Belfast, Ireland, in July 1981 and delivered to Carson a short time later.

It features DeLorean’s instantly recognizable brushed stainless-steel body and gullwing doors, as well as an optional gray leather interior, louvered rear window, Dolby sound system, air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, power side mirrors, and early digital clock. It is powered by a 2.85-liter V-6 engine—located in the rear—that’s rated at 130 horsepower with 153 lb-ft of torque and mated to a manual transmission. It sits on cast-alloy wheels (14 inches in front, 15 inches in the rear).

The car comes with a 6000-mile or six-month warranty on all the parts, which were sourced directly from DeLorean Motor Company. There are 89,680 miles on the odometer.

Johnny Carson 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 dash gauges
Hagerty Marketplace

In addition to this car and the previously mentioned Cannonball Run Countach, Ierardi has restored DeLorean Prototype-1 (designed by Bill Collins), which resides at the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania; the twin-turbo DeLorean; and the third-built 1983 Delorean DMC-12 Gold Edition.

With more than a week remaining in the Hagerty Marketplace auction, Johnny Carson’s first DeLorean (one of fewer than 9000 DMCs built) has been bid to $31,000. The auction closes on Friday, December 8, at 3 p.m. EST.

“DeLorean is a great car, and had it not been for a couple of missteps, I think it would have made it,” Ierardi opines. “I’m glad it lives on though. I had a five-year-old kid in here the other day who said, ‘I’m going to own one of these someday.’ It definitely has lasting appeal for people of all ages.”

Johnny Carson 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 rear
Hagerty Marketplace




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    I still do not understand the fixation of the Delorean.

    These cars are more the story than the car. They were under powered. Poor quality builds, did not handle all that great and and stainless is a pain to care for.

    These are like a Bricklin with a worse engine and a better story.

    The better story is the 1 of 3 gold models that is sitting behind this one. I saw #2 at Reno a few years ago. Much better story.

    The Carson car has bounced around the country. It was on display at the Canton Car Museum years ago.

    I think you answered your own question. The Story is the fixation. If you own one you own bragging rights to the story 🙂

    Without people willing to try to make their dreams reality, we’d still be living in caves. While
    “Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan” is an accurate observation, we should admire those willing to try and fail just as much as we admire those who succeeded. It takes guts to stick one’s neck out.

    I thought he could not get out because the door failed, not that he locked himself in it. I’m sure he was not too happy when he got out.

    Anything over $10,000 would be a waste of money – terrible cars – I only heard of Carson driving his Corvettes…

    I have yet to understand the supposed relationship between “celebrity”- ownership and a vehicle’s valuation. It is a marketing gimmick.

    You’re wrong.
    You can’t make sweeping statements about ownership.
    All things being equal, a car with a good story is going to be worth more.
    Would you rather have Jim Clark’s Lotus Elan or one owned by a dentist?
    Zora Arkus-Duntov’s ‘vette?
    A Paul Newman Porsche?
    Usually the market (the pool of potential buyers) is smart enough not to bid things to silly levels, so a nice history or story is a small increase in price.

    I always considered Carson to be a very smart man. Why he or anyone would want a Delorean is beyond me. John Delorean was a great innovator and one of the forefathers of the muscle car era when at GM, however he tried to build his own vision of an automobile without enough financing to accomplish his goal, and had to settle or compromise and the result is what you see. I assure you the Delorean is not the car that he envisioned but it’s all that he could come up with due to money constraints and it was and is a terrible example of a car.

    I had considered one when the company went under, not as a street car, but as a collectable. And I passed, because there were thousands of them on the dock, all the same. Sure, the upholstery changed from black to grey at some point in production. But otherwise, all the same. I could have bought that car, and put it in deep storage for the last 40 years or so. I could auction it today for about what it would have cost…somewhere in the low 20’s, but only after a complete restoration to repair the toll of time. Not much of an investment.

    I can’t remember the year, but I was working for Bob Lichty at Motorcar Portfolio in Canton Ohio. He sold one of Carson’s DeLorian’s. If i remember correctly we didn’t get a lot of action on the car. The glove box door was signed and dated by Johnny himself. We finally sent it to auction in Auburn I’m thinking, and there it sold. I can’t research records, as since Bobs death I don’t know what happened to them. Interesting story though.

    I’m wondering if the days of the value of a car bring enhanced by a celebrity are numbered. My parents watched Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show at the peak of his popularity. I think the number of buyers for celebrity provenance is dwindling daily. Unless…a car or motorcycle comes with an opened pair of socks once gifted to Steve McQueen and the card is signed Paul Newman, then the bidding will be full-throttle!
    If we were looking at a low VIN, low miles 1991 ZR-1, I’m not sure a Carson car adds to the value, but it does add to the story and as it has been observed, the winning bidder is really buying the story.

    I heard that due to heavy drinking and the stress of 18 divorces, Mr. Carson became extremely flatulent and thus repeatedly left his mark on that gray upholstery. NOW we’re talking real money!!$$

    I have never driven one, so can’t comment on the handling or acceleration, although given the rather low horsepower and the weight of this thing, I would imagine it is pretty slow, even by 1981 standards. The main thing that always killed it for me was the styling. I know everyone seems to love them, but to me they look way too wide for the height and length of the car. It looks fat and squashed. I guess beauty resides in the eye of the beholder. I’ll keep my E-Type.

    I drove a 3 year old Delorian that was on a local Chevrolet used car lot. Terrible visibility and under powered as well as mediocre handling. Other than that it was O.K. Oh and overpriced.

    After reading all the comments posted, no one mentioned the movie, “Back to the Future “.
    If not for that movie, wouldn’t expect to see this much interest in these cars after all these years.
    Still a good article.

    I’m surprised at the number of hater comments posted here. Not even one love pat on the old girl’s fanny.

    I’ve never driven one but have seen them at cruise nights and one in a friend’s collection. I never thought of them more than a curiosity. The cabin and seating look to be extremely uncomfortable. Oops! I guess another hater comment.

    Stanley should be pleased that his “brians” typo got the most comments.

    My point here was originally to be that my friend had a unique treatment for adding stripes on his brushed stainless DeLorean. He masked off a beautiful stripe pattern, then polished that area to a mirror finish. I have to admit, it dolled it up quite a bit. When he tired of that, a piece of coarse steel wool would return it to its original finish.

    Worth about a gram & a half of mediocre cocaine to somebody that uses that stuff. Less than that to me since I don’t. You can have this one… I have zero intrest.

    I once saw one outside a 7-11 on Marco Island. I asked who owned it, the clerk said he did. It was his dream car, and a daily driver. Kudos to him, but not a great collector car ever since then!

    I don’t know, 10 – 15 years ago they were $17,000 cars.
    At today’s prices, they have done well as a collector car.

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