Dissed by DeLorean: Bill Collins, designer of the DMC-12 prototype, reflects

Bill Collins was part of something big. Something historic, as it turned out. And then he wasn’t. Perhaps it was for the best.

In the 1970s, Collins designed and built the prototype for the DeLorean DMC-12—a car that became both an automotive and Hollywood icon (thanks to Back to the Future)—and his work helped John Z. DeLorean secure a deal with Lotus founder Colin Chapman to engineer the car.

However, when DeLorean and Chapman procured a $17.65 million investment from a Swiss company called General Product Development (GPD), Collins was asked to sign a contract that essentially ousted him and gave Lotus full control of design and production.

“I was upset with John. He forced me to resign,” says Collins, who was at the Traverse City (Michigan) Film Festival’s screening of Framing John DeLorean, a new docudrama in which he played a key role. “I think he was happy to see me go—he didn’t try to stop me. A short time later, in the early ’80s, when I tried to exercise my stock options, he and his lawyer wanted me to pay a withholding tax. There was no reason to do that. I just wanted what I had been promised.

“That was the last time I spoke to him.” DeLorean died on March 19, 2005.

framing John DeLorean panel
Matt Lewis

After Collins, now in his late 80s, left the DeLorean Motor Company in 1979 and started the Vixen Motor Company in 1981, the $17.65 million that DeLorean received from GPD went missing. A forensic accountant later determined that DeLorean and Chapman had laundered the money and split it. Desperate to save his floundering company, DeLorean was arrested by DEA agents in 1982 and charged with drug trafficking after taking part in a sting operation to sell cocaine. Although DeLorean was found not guilty, it was too late for his company and its stylish DMC-12 sports car.

Framing John DeLorean was a 15-year passion project for producer Tamir Ardon, who has always been fascinated with DeLorean’s stainless steel, gull-winged DMC-12. (He learned that a sedan was already in the works when the company folded, by the way.) Ardon’s unique film, which mixes interviews with reenactments starring Alec Baldwin as DeLorean, is the first DeLorean-based movie to be produced, although many other filmmakers have tried. Driven, a second, more-conventional DeLorean feature film, will be released later this month.

“I think Tamir had way too much about me in it,” Collins says of Framing John DeLorean, although he admits he played a big role in moving the car from concept to prototype. “I think [the movie] is very well done. It puts it all out there and lets you decide. And the make-up people did such a good job—[Baldwin] really does look like John DeLorean.”

What about Josh Charles, who portrays Collins? “The first time we saw the movie, my wife, Nina, said, ‘That’s supposed to be you, Bill. What’s he doing up there?’” Collins laughs. “I think he did a good job.”

Collins says he worked for John DeLorean longer than anyone—beginning as a GM engineer in December 1958 until he left DMC in March 1979. The two had a lot of shared success, including the hugely popular 1964 Pontiac GTO performance package that evolved into its own model, and, of course, the DMC-12 prototype, which was a vital tool to secure investors.

pair of DeLoreans
Matt Lewis

“I wasn’t involved in the production [of the DMC-12], but the car was very close to the prototype,” Collins says. “The important thing was getting it to (Italian designer Giorgetto) Giugiaro. He was the right person. I think he did a good job of integrating a Lotus chassis with the shape.

“There are some little things I would have changed—like there’s nothing inside the car that tells you it’s a DeLorean. But the biggest thing is it should have had a bigger engine [than its 2.85-liter, fuel-injected aluminum PRV (Peugeot-Renault-Volvo) SOHC V-6, rated at 130 hp]. Everyone said it was underpowered, and they were right.

“DeLorean and Chapman should have gone out and gotten a better engine instead of stroking each other’s ego,” Collins says. “They were two peas in a pod.”

That’s about as critical as Collins is willing to get when it comes to DeLorean. When asked if he is bitter about how things went down, he chooses his words carefully.

“Well, I couldn’t bring myself to buy [a DeLorean] until 10 years ago. It took me that long,” he says. “And I changed the hood [from his ’82] because I like how the grooves look on the ’81.”

Bill Collins DeLorean
Matt Lewis

Collins assesses his two-decade-long friendship with DeLorean. “He was essentially my mentor at Pontiac. I was the guy who took his ideas and made them work—and I left Pontiac to join him. He was persuasive. But he was a different person [after GM]. The guy was not intellectually honest. We didn’t see that early on.”

On the bright side, Collins admits, “I learned something from it. I learned how to build something from nothing, starting with a clean sheet of paper. And I learned what to do and what not to do to raise money when I launched my own company.”

Near the end of Framing John DeLorean, DeLorean is asked in a television interview if he feels any regret about his failed DMC venture. He answers with a quote that he says is from Shakespeare, although the words were actually spoken by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Do those words also apply to Collins’ DeLorean experience? He smiles. “I love that statement,” he says without elaborating further. “I think we all do.”

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