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1981 DeLorean DMC-12 Retro Review: We drive it 42 years in the future

Bynewsmagzines

Jun 15, 2023
1981 DeLorean DMC-12 Retro Review: We drive it 42 years in the future



The only reasons we have the DeLorean DMC-12 to make a fuss over are stainless steel and Steven Spielberg asking, “What about the kids?” If one of those ingredients had been missing, John Z’s problem child would molder in dark anonymity with gull-winged cohorts of the era like the Bricklin SV-1 and Manta Montage. 

Stainless steel kept the car from disintegrating into the same elemental powder that erased names like Escort, Cavalier, and Colt from the land more slowly than, but just as effectively as, a Thanos snap. Spielberg’s concern for child safety helped change the movie that made the DeLorean famous. Director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Robert Gale finished the first draft of “Back to the Future” in February 1981, one month after the first production DMC-12 rolled off the Belfast line. In the first draft, which had its action taking place in 1982, Doc Brown had built a stationary, laser-based time machine he called a Power Converter that he couldn’t get to work. It was Marty McFly that accidentally made time travel an Oedipal threat to families everywhere by pouring Coca-Cola into the Power Converter while Doc was napping, bringing the time warp to life and sending McFly to 1952.

To return Marty to 1982, the 1952 Doc Brown built a 1952 version of the Power Converter inside a refrigerator of the era. Coke was a thing in 1952, but the early-post-war Doc didn’t use Coke nor a lightning strike for juice. He strapped the fridge to the back of an Army truck and had McFly drive that truck into ground zero of a 15-megaton atomic bomb test held in Atkins, Nevada, that year.

Even though the child-killing refrigerators with doors that could only be opened from the outside had been outlawed by the Refrigerator Safety Act of 1958, Spielberg worried that kids might climb inside a fridge after seeing the movie. By the time Zemeckis and Gale decided to make the time machine mobile, the DMC-12 had materialized, looking alien enough in 1982 that the 1950s farmer clan in the film could believably consider it a UFO.

So here we are 39 years after “BTTF” became the top grossing film of the year, and the DMC-12 still grips the imagination. The four-decade run is all the more fascinating because when we rented a 1981 DeLorean on Turo, we discovered it’s not all that pleasant to drive below time travel velocity.

The DeLorean’s primary issue is that it feels so much heavier than it is. The spec sheet puts the DMC-12 in line with the 1981 Nissan 280ZX, the Nissan more grand tourer at that point than the focused sports car it leaned toward in the 1970s. The DeLorean weighs about 2,745 pounds, roughly 150 pounds more than the Nissan. The DeLorean’s Peugeot-Renault-Volvo-sourced 2.85-liter V6 produced 130 horsepower and 153 pound-feet of torque. The Nissan’s 2.8-liter inline-six in naturally aspirated form made 138 hp and 149 lb-ft. However, unlike the Nissan, every urban driving aspect of the DeLorean is lugubrious and lazy, from the Gold’s Gym resistance of the pedals to the leisurely acceleration, coal barge steering, and aircraft carrier turning circle. In our notes, we wrote, “The steering, throttle pedal, and brake pedal are the heaviest controls I’ve ever used in any passenger vehicle, and that includes the Dodge Viper ACR.” 

The PRV V6 has taken a lot of heat for the DMC-12’s torpor, which isn’t fair. The six-cylinder is the overstrained, under-geared heart in a haphazardly built body. Alpine (yes, today’s Alpine) used the same engine in the A310 with a smaller displacement of 2.65 liters but more oomph, 148 horsepower, to move less weight, at 2,161 pounds. Most important, the independent but still Renault-affiliated Alpine had more time, money, and carmaking nous to refine the package. A German A310 reviewer declared, “I was unprepared for how well this car went. Once the full length of the throttle travel was discovered, it seemed to have acceleration not that far behind the 911, delivered with a lusty, offbeat growl that was as inspiring as the similarly powered DeLorean’s was limp and unappealing.”

To be fair to the silverware from Northern Ireland, the U.S. automotive press was initially open-minded about DeLorean’s work, in spite of the shabby early builds used for the first reviews. Car and Driver wrote those cars were “abysmally short of any commercial standard of acceptability: switches popped loose, parts fell off, the rattles had squeaks, doors jammed shut, doors refused to latch, and windows fell out of their tracks.”

Even so, that review ended on a cliffhanger hinging on manufacturing, not dynamics: “Clearly, their future pivots on a single unresolved issue: will the Dunmurry [Ireland] plant rise to the cause and start building the silver bullets John Z. intended? Or will the DeLorean become another Concorde — a technological marvel that turns out to be an economic disaster? Find out for sure in our next installment.” From Road & Track‘s 1977 piece on the DMC-12’s gestation to its 1982 review after a first drive, or the story of an owner who reportedly said, “The car sucks, but man does it look good while sucking,” testers recognized the effort and potential of John Z’s dream, and owners tried to make the most of the occasional nightmare. Except for Chris Harris.

The DMC-12 is enjoyed the most when asked to do the least. Park it somewhere and get ready to do interviews, or run it at cinematic velocity — as close as you can get, anyway. Jimmy Carter, U.S. president during most of the car’s development, mandated speedos could only go up to 85 miles per hour, so the movie car required a custom display to hit the magic number.

The three-speed automatic’s tall gearing siphons verve and sucks gas in the city, the benefit being unstressed highway cruising. Curvy roads out the suspension as being made of marshmallows and understeer, the plump heft and cushy damping shine on highways. The exhaust’s Dyson-y sounds are covered by the wind. The driver’s seat and its “butt pocket,” despite looking designed for a technician on a spice freighter to Arrakis, hide smushy foam that collapses into a pleasant-enough driver’s cubby. DeLorean made sure his car fit his 6’4” frame comfortably, and it does when settled in and gazing down the open road. When you need to crane your neck to watch out for urban furniture, which will be a lot of the time, anyone above 5’10” is liable to tap their head against the spine in the cabin ceiling where the gullwing doors attach.

What’s the verdict? Hear me out on this: The DMC-12 is an alternate universe Ferrari 355. The Ferrari is challenging and exhilarating, but its unholy maintenance costs make it a harebrained choice for anyone who isn’t rich and obsessed. For that specific buyer, though, I heartily recommend it. There’s no substitute. The F355 is amazing, and a smart buy won’t lose money.

The DeLorean is challenging and renowned and costs a lot less to maintain, but its frailties make it only for the bewitched. To those under its spell, though, I recommend it. It can’t be replicated, and a smart buy won’t lose money.

Like so many reviewers before me, excepting Chris Harris, I give this DMC-12 a pass. My reasons: I saw “BTTF” in theaters during its first run, and I don’t own the car. Nostalgia, getting stopped everywhere to answer questions, and the freedom to walk away have ways of making the realization, “Wow, this isn’t that much fun,” a total hoot. I have almost no desire to try an original DMC-12 again. But I’m awfully glad I got to try an original DMC-12.

Almost is key, because we’re definitely going to visit Houston, Texas, to sample one of the pristine, restored examples Classic DeLorean maintains. Meticulous care, deep expertise, modern components, and the laying on of money could cure many of the ills listed above.

Speaking of which, we’d love for Classic DeLorean or New DeLorean or DeLorean Next Generation Motors, the effort founded by John Z’s daughter, to create the modern, fully formed revival we haven’t seen yet. A futuristic and (somewhat) affordable coupe that compels the same “Golly!” reactions of the original. Because if we’re honest, we are about as close to that kind of DMC-12 vibe revival as we’ve ever been, except the badge on the ghost of stainless steel past doesn’t say DMC-12. It says Cybertruck.

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