DeLorean Delight: Test driving John Z’s bullet—again

In 1981, I accompanied John Z. DeLorean via Concorde to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he presented his DMC-12 sports car to the world’s luckiest magazine writers. Back in the U.S. a few months later, I borrowed a customer-owned car for instrumented testing and hot lapping around Michigan’s Waterford Raceway.

In competitive testing, the DeLorean fared poorly against its peers. Packing a mere 130 horsepower, it was slower than cheaper rivals and not especially entertaining to drive on back roads or around a closed course. Its only real strength was challenging a Ferrari 308GTSi’s sex appeal. With fingers crossed, the magazine employing me gave the DMC-12 a bye in hopes that a turbo kit under development would save the day. This proved to be in vain because the entire DeLorean enterprise imploded in a swirl of cocaine dust and investment-fund misappropriation after producing about 9000 cars.

But would those sorry initial assessments hold water today?  To find out, I seized upon the good graces of Bill Collins, its original designer, when he offered a test drive in the 1982 DMC-12 that he purchased a few years ago after his disgust with the DeLorean affair had faded.

Bringing the DMC-12 to life

Bill Collins Work Bench
Unafraid of soiling his hands on an entertaining car or home upkeep project, the 87-year-old Collins at his work bench. Traverse City Record-Eagle / Mike Krebs

After DeLorean graduated from heading Pontiac to running Chevrolet, Collins became the corporate chief engineer for the new full-size sedans to be sold by all four GM car divisions starting in 1977. Though neither Collins nor DeLorean were still employed at GM when those cars finally hit the street, the Chevy Caprice earned a Motor Trend Car of the Year award, and its sister ships sold by Buick, Pontiac, and Cadillac also won acclaim.

Bored with GM management politics, DeLorean bailed out in 1973 to build what he called an
“ethical” sports car, drawing Collins into his web the following year. Giorgetto Giugiaro collaborated on the exterior design, the British government provided funding for a manufacturing plant, and the stainless-steel-skinned DMC-12 sports car looked like a potential winner. Then, suddenly, Collins who had thoughtfully guided the engineering effort incorporating most of DeLorean’s grand ideas, became the odd man out.

Colin Chapman’s Lotus Cars took over the final steps needed to ready the DMC-12 for production, prompting Collins’ 1979 resignation after he had invested more than four years of effort in his mentor’s dream.

V Insignia Bill Collins
The V insignia behind his sparkling sports car was proudly displayed on the innovative Vixen motorhome Collins manufactured after he departed DeLorean. Traverse City Record-Eagle / Mike Krebs

“Those were heart-wrenching days,” recalls Collins, now 87. “And when I was denied the company stock options I had earned, I never again spoke to DeLorean. Little did I realize the scheme he and Chapman contrived to siphon company funds into personal accounts would ultimately catch up with them.”

Chapman died in 1982, although there’s speculation that he hid somewhere for a few years beyond that date. DeLorean died of a heart attack in 2005.

The old wounds eventually healed for Collins, and he was moved to buy a 1982 DeLorean, which he now treasures.

Back behind the wheel

Delorean Car
Courtesy of Don Sherman

Then and now, DeLoreans demand patience and agility entering the cockpit. The climb over the high sill while ducking under the raised gull wing and avoiding the parking brake with legs splayed wide could be a yoga move. Then you give the loop hanging well above your head a vigorous yank to retract the wing into its latches. If you fail to muster the necessary energy to engage both the front and rear latches, you’re in trouble.  (I speak from experience.) In the event pulling the release lever to open the door for a second try doesn’t work, you have two options. One is to exit the vehicle via the opposite-side door, a move that several journos exploited ages ago in Belfast. Option two: summon assistance. Leaning heavily on the door’s outside surface will usually engage both latches, thereby granting a second try at exiting the vehicle.

Gullwing cars are great for tight garages, and you never have to worry about scraping a door over a high curb.

I’m happy to report that the DeLorean’s cockpit is a pleasant place to relax once you’ve achieved entry. The leather seats are comfortable, adjustable, and supportive. There’s head room for those topping six feet, and ample foot space to operate the pedals. The double-dogleg five-speed shift pattern is a cinch to navigate, requiring only one trick move: to engage reverse you must lift the lever before moving it to the left, then back.

DeLorean DMC 12 Engine
The DeLorean DMC12 was (under)powered by a French-built 2.8-liter SOHC V-6 engine rated at 130 net horsepower. Traverse City Record-Eagle / Mike Krebs

The Peugeot-Renault-Volvo 2.8-liter V-6 engine remains a clunker. This 90-degree V-8 with two missing cylinders is shaky at idle. Throttle response is good, but the 130 horses don’t achieve stampede velocity until 5000 rpm, trying your patience on the leisurely waltz around the tach. Through the midrange there’s enough punch to defend your spot in traffic even with the shifter in an upper gear. While the driveline never really sparkles, it is adequate for polite cruising.

Due to its lack of power assistance, the steering is heavy exiting a parking spot. That annoyance is minor, however, and once you’re underway you’re glad there are no hydraulic helpers to muddle feedback between the front tires and the steering wheel. The steering ratio feels just right, so there’s no elbow knocking in tight turns. Aggressive lane change moves are agile and stable with no hint of front-tire grind or tail wag. Likewise, this car holds its line while cruising with minimal minding. I wouldn’t mind taking it on a cross-country journey.

Worth owning?

1982 DeLorean DMC12 and 1936 Ford Convertible
Bill Collins’s 1982 DeLorean DMC12 with gull wings deployed parked next to his 1936 Ford convertible in his Northport, Michigan, garage. Traverse City Record-Eagle / Mike Krebs

Thanks to this refresher course and upon considering where the DeLorean fits in the modern scheme of things, I wouldn’t mind owning one. One in #3 (good) condition averages a reasonable $31,300. Spare parts are readily available from a revival enterprise in Humble, Texas. And while driving joy remains well down the DeLorean’s list of attributes, it has several compensating virtues: the stainless skin and fiberglass bodywork should last forever with minimal care; with these sparkly wings, every arrival is a major event with eyes drawn toward the luminary exiting the cockpit; and owning one of these movie stars is a great excuse to spout corny flux-capacitor jokes.

I’d say that the slightly wacky sports car sired by DeLorean and Collins will enjoy a glamorous future with no help from time travel technology.

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    Shame on you Don Sherman!!! STILL KICKING JOHN DELOREAN AROUND!!! ,the man died in 2005 .He was not convicted so the cocaine should never be mentioned again. Why don’t you write a story about his contributions to the car industry & the joy his car designs brought to MILLIONS of people who purchased cars he designed. The shop I worked for fabricated the model “BAE turbo for the Delorean”. I also have experience working on that all aluminum v6 (Peugeot,Renault,Volvo) those old style sluggish SOLEX carbs contributed to low power. But I’m sure the turbo woke it up. Who you going to BASH next month Tucker??….two GREAT MEN.TOO BAD you don’t write about what is RIGHT with someone

    I concur, since the man was found not guilty the snide cocaine comments are unwarranted. I did enjoy the rest of the article however, and it’s nice to know Mr. Collins owned the car he had such a significant role in creating.

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