Best dad ever? Homegrown DeLorean “Time Machine” makes 6-year-old’s dream come true
Jon Miller wasn’t about to cut up pieces of cardboard and glue them to his restored DeLorean to somehow make it look like the Time Machine from the 1985 blockbuster movie, Back to the Future. That was just a suggestion from his wife, Amanda, in response to a request from their six-year-old son, Evan.
Initially, Miller rejected the idea of turning his stainless steel-skinned sports coupe into a movie prop replica, even though he was a big fan of the film. When he thought about it a bit more, he had an epiphany. If he was going to build an homage to what is arguably the world’s most famous and beloved movie car, he was going to do it right.
That had been Miller’s guiding principle since repairing a worn-down ’86 Fiero, gifted to him at 17 from his grandmother, and from there entered his auto service career. Miller remains a notable figure in the Pontiac Fiero hobby, restoring, buying and selling the plastic two-seaters that zoomed to fame (and some infamy) around the same time as “Back to the Future.” (Fiero enthusiasts that visit his 10-bay auto service shop in Tuckerton, New Jersey know him as “Fiero Jon.”) He’d first delved into DeLoreans when a customer came in seeking service work, spurring Miller to buy one for himself and restore it.
The fateful Time Machine moment came in 2016, when Miller was attending the Washington West Film Festival in Reston, Virginia, with his family. He’d been enlisted by the event to ferry celebrities to the red carpet in the DeLorean. When young Evan saw the Time Machine also on display, he “went crazy,” Miller tells Hagerty. “He looked at me and said, ‘Dad, we have to take apart our DeLorean and build a Time Machine.’”
“I had never wanted to build one,” Miller says. “I felt it was above my skill level.” His wife’s suggestion about the cardboard was just an idea to give their son something fun. Miller, though, took a longer view.
Traveling through time in style
“The Time Machines are their own thing,” says Miller. “If you grew up in the ‘80s and saw Back to the Future, you wanted that car. To own a DeLorean became a thing for people who were not necessarily car people.”
Indeed, that appeal holds true 35 years later. In our January 2020 story on plans to produce new DMC-12s, we remarked on the enormous popularity of the Back to the Future movie franchise that turned what would otherwise have been another cult car into a pop-culture icon instead.
In the movie, the Time Machine was the invention of the endearingly quirky scientist, Dr. Emmet Brown (“Doc Brown”) played by Christopher Lloyd. Onboard nuclear power fed his invention, the Flux Capacitor, with the “1.21 gigawatts” of electricity that he asserted was required to time travel, forward or backward. You simply selected a desired date on the time circuits. Hitting 88 mph in the car would trigger the jump through temporal space.
Doc Brown tells the teenage Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, that his choice of the DeLorean as the time-traveling vessel was for “style.”
Of the three original movie prop cars, the one used for close-ups, is in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
A rough start
Miller decided to go all-in on the Time Machine project. An admitted perfectionist and obsessive, he began researching the movie’s prop cars as deeply as anything he’d ever studied. He uncovered a kind of cult within a cult, people who obsess over the car’s details in the way guitar players dissect Eddie Van Halen’s fretboard technique.
“I ordered some stuff that turned out to be cheap and inaccurate, the wrong color, the wrong shape,” he says.
That experience set him on a path to get the right parts, a search as arduous as for any rare classic car.
The right stuff
“I was soon on a quest. It became addictive,” he continues. “You go nuts searching for a particular turbine or heat sink.”
Where does one even look for DeLorean Time Machine parts? The builders of the original movie prop cars went to Apex, a 70+ year-old surplus electronics warehouse in Sun Valley, California, and Norton Sales in neighboring North Hollywood, which bills itself as “the leading company in aerospace props and science fiction rentals for over 50 years.”
So, that’s where Miller went, too. While in Los Angeles, he studied the real thing at The Petersen.
“Other builders have done this. We call it ‘the pilgrimage,’” he says, referring to a small community of Time Machine makers. “I’ve also gone through junkyards and torn apart computers for parts,” he adds.
“Screen accurate” is the “numbers matching” equivalent for BttF Time Machines. Miller was determined to make his DeLorean Time Machine correct to a remarkably precise level of detail. Take, for example, the roughly 80 rubber-insulated P-clamps used to secure cabling on the car. You can buy generic P-clamps for about 80 cents apiece, but those would not be the correct aerospace-grade parts made with ethylene propylene synthetic rubber. Their purple color indicates the aerospace specification for resistance to hydraulic fluid. Miller bought exactly those clamps for $20 each.
“They are screen accurate,” he says. So, too, are his Flux Capacitor, Flux Bands, and nuclear reactor. “There’s also a particular heat sink you can’t get,” he explains. “We had it machined out of billet aluminum. It just sits on top of the radio in the car. It doesn’t do anything, but it cost $300.”
Miller spent a lot of time on eBay hunting for the correct 1980s-vintage Rotex label maker and period-correct tape to make all the labels on the devices in the car. Making the project even more enjoyable for Miller was that he had his son help—really help.
“I wanted him to be involved. He learned how to drill, cut aluminum, TIG weld, bend pipes, do wiring, solder, sand, paint, and more.”
Miller’s DeLorean makes one departure from the prop car; it’s an automatic versus the film car’s stick shift.
“I converted it to look like a stick. I do parades with the car and do not want to burn out the clutch,” he explains. “And sometimes, a security guard at a convention center event has to move the car. I wanted to keep it simple.”
Who doesn’t like a Time Machine?
Not everyone approves of Miller’s car, and any DeLorean converted into the BttF Time Machine has its detractors.
“There’s a battle between Time Machine builders and DeLorean purists,” Miller says. “Some don’t like that builders drill holes in their DeLoreans. There’s some drama there.” At the same time, Miller did not want to hurt the car. He did not drill any holes in it but rather attached screwheads using automotive windshield urethane. “It took three times as long to do it that way,” he says. “But it’s a respect thing. I could in theory remove everything and put it back to a stock DeLorean, but I don’t plan to ever do that.”
Lights, sound effects, time travel!
Most critically, all the special visual and sound effects on Miller’s Time Machine are functional, in a movie fantasy sense.
“The Flux Capacitor works. It’s fluxing,” says Miller. “The time circuits are programmable—you can put any past or future date. The digital speedometer is connected to GPS. You can statically change speed and simulate time travel. So when it hits 88 mph, all the movie effects start. The plutonium gauges will go from full to empty. Then you have to reload the plutonium chamber.”
In fact, Miller’s Time Machine does more than even the movie car did. “Keep in mind that the movie car did not do all of this,” he says. “Those sound effects were added in post-production. My car has to do this live.” When he says has to do this, he means as a business.
“We rent these cars out for events—we all do,” Miller says, again referencing the small community of Time Machine builders. He estimates there may be fewer than 20 accurate replicas in the U.S. covering the Northeast, from New Hampshire down to North Carolina. There are seven in Los Angeles. “You can get a Back to the Future tour in one of them. We’ll refer each other for events outside of our area.”
Miller’s car impressed Universal Studios enough to earn a place on its approved list of vendors. The studio, which produced the films, even rented it in conjunction with IMAX for the premier of Steven Spielberg’s movie, Ready Player One, at Awesomecon in Washington, D.C. in 2018. He added a Knight Rider scanner to the front of the car to make it screen-accurate for that film.
The car has appeared at events for Lockheed Martin, the National Association of Realtors, and other major corporations and trade shows. It’s also participated in events where Christopher Lloyd appeared. In all cases, the special effects operate in full force to entertain the crowds. Miller says one the most memorable events for him was displaying the DeLorean at The Mann Center in Philadelphia when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra played the film score live for a viewing of Back to the Future. He even does weddings with the car, and rapper T. Payne rented it for an event.
This past spring, events cancelled for COVID-19 restrictions meant lost or postponed jobs. When the gigs are on, the money is good, Miller says. The best part for him, however, is watching Evan, now 10, and daughter Alice, 5, enjoy the Time Machine together.
“Evan has gone on some really cool adventures and met cool people with me,” says Miller, “and Alice absolutely loves the Time Machine, especially all the buttons and lights.”
Now 35 years old, Doc’s DeLorean is still with us, bending the rules of time as much as ever.