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Great automotive icons outlive the hands that made them -- the Beetle, the Mini, the Lotus 7. A name few ever expected to add to this list was De Lorean.
The De Lorean DMC-12 upset thousands of Irishmen, turned an executive into a drug dealer, stole from the British government, and possibly killed Colin Chapman. Does it truly deserve to live? One man thinks so, and he’ll sell you this curse with a smile on his face.
The car was jinxed from the beginning. Power came from a rear-mounted 130 horsepower version of the PRV V-6. This was the same unit that provided anemic power to such unexciting cars as the Renault Espace and the Volvo 700 series. The body was fiberglass with stainless steel outer panels shaped into a five-year-old design from Giorgetto Giugiaro. By the time it hit production,the design was already showing its age, but its timeless gullwing doors would always provide flair.
This combination made the DMC-12 the penguin of the automotive world -- the doors may have given the car wings, but the engine insured it would never fly.
The automotive press agreed, achieving a 0-60 time around the 10.5 second range. But DMC-12 was not promoted as a performance car, instead it was called an “ethical” sports car. Unfortunately it had trouble living up to that. The product hitting the showroom was flawed because the factory outside of Belfast did not properly train their largely unskilled workforce. Worse yet, when word of the car’s shortcomings caused customers and cash to go away, John De Lorean tried to finance the company by importing cocaine to the U.S. He was caught in October 1982, and his arrest was the final nail in the company’s coffin.
The British government had given the company around £100 million in hopes of getting the people of Northern Ireland to stop throwing rocks and start picking up wrenches. When the project went bust, they wanted to know where the money went. The paper trail led to the discovery of £10 million disappearing into a private Swiss bank account. This not only implicated the already tarnished De Lorean, but also the legendary Colin Chapman.
Chapman’s involvement started when he and Lotus were called in to develop the De Lorean’s backbone. He gave the DMC-12 the same “double-Y” chassis that was already a hit in his Lotus Esprit. Unfortunately not all of the payment for this work reached Lotus and disappeared somewhere between John De Lorean and Colin Chapman. Before Chapman could answer the accusations, he suffered a massive heart attack and died in December of 1982. What robbed the racing world of a few more innovative designs may have preserved a reputation.
John De Lorean fared a little better. He was acquitted on drug charges in the U.S. and never returned to Britain for fear of arrest. From that time on, until his death in 2005, he no longer had a role in the company that bore his name.
By 1983 the factory was dead, but it had an extensive inventory that was bought and shipped to Ohio. The company was re-born via Stephen Wynn, a Los Angeles mechanic, specializing in European cars. De Lorean maintenance became such a steady source of income that he worked on them exclusively. Wynn became the person to see for service or to purchase a restored De Lorean.
As president of the reestablished De Lorean Motor Company, Wynn is a dangerous man. His English accent and easy-going-but-professional attitude makes this Liverpool native instantly endearing to his American customer base. A waiting list for his cars means he doesn’t need to sell you a car, but you’ll want to buy one from him – which makes him hazardous to your wallet.
Wynn moved his growing business to Houston, Texas in 1987. He further expanded in 1997, when he bought the stock of the entire Ohio warehouse. Fifty-five trailer loads later, he became the sole source of new De Lorean parts. The entire stock was placed in a 40,000 square foot showroom, warehouse, and manufacturing facility in suburban Houston.
The current De Lorean headquarters is unimpressive from the outside. If it wasn’t for the De Lorean marquee and shiny cars in front of the building, it could easily be mistaken for a bread company.
Inside is a different story. Through the bay door, there is a wall of original PRV V-6s stacked from the floor to ceiling stretching for almost fifty yards, still in their original packaging. This unusual sight is repeated. Doors, quarter panels, seats, transmissions, headlights, and almost every other part needed for the DMC-12 is still lying in its quarter century cocoon.
The Houston facility is exactly what the original De Lorean Motor Company should have been. Wynn has used the last 25 years of customer experience to do what the original factory could never do – get the car right. Wynn’s people know what are the most likely components to wear or fail, and they are able to provide durable solutions. Skilled craftsmen perform all work; there is no assembly line of low-cost parts here.
While the cars are being restored, Wynn uses the opportunity to re-engineer the original car’s shortfalls. Wynn explains his interest in the stainless steel cars, “It’s a European designed car and that’s my heritage. All the parts of the De Lorean are the same things I know and love.”
Part of the De Lorean’s modernization includes a reworked suspension by Eibach. Not only does this improve the grip of the car, but it also lowers the front end by a few inches, transforming the “happy puppy” look of the original into a proper aggressive profile.
Wynn developed an upgraded V-6 with reworked headers and exhaust system to yield 200 horsepower. 0-60 times are improved by a few seconds, and it moves the 2700 lb car’s power to weight ratio from 20.8 lb per horsepower to 13.5. That’s like trading in a mid-level Mercedes A class for a V-6 SLK.
Wynn has realized that he has enough parts to build a DMC-12 completely from warehouse stock, so that’s exactly what he’s doing – sort of. Wynn started the “New Build” program which takes a donor car, and rebuilds it using 85% to 90% new parts. Wynn could build a car from scratch, but then it would be subject to today’s regulations, something that would put the project well over its base price of about $60,000.
Instead the new build utilizes Wynn’s improvements on the refurbished cars and then takes advantage of modern systems to solve the cars shortcomings. This includes a stainless steel chassis to eliminate any possibility of rust; a new fiberglass body that utilizes modern casting and soundproofing methods; and a new interior with richer leather to eliminate the plastic look of the original. A navigation system, I-Pod interface, Xenon headlights, Bluetooth, and other modern conveniences are also available.
Each new build consists of over 2800 parts. The cars are hand assembled and take a month to complete. “This is one big puzzle,” explains Steve Gibson, build team leader. “Making the doors close perfectly is a two to three day task itself.”
Wynn says he only wants to release a handful of new builds every year. This not only makes the “new from 1983” De Loreans an exclusive club, but it also gives Wynn the opportunity to focus on the continuous evolution of the car.
One of the more exciting projects for the future includes developing a supercharged version of the PRV V-6. Test runs in the original, upgraded and supercharged engines were like being offered coffee in small, medium, and triple espresso.
The original engine for the DMC-12 is adequate at best. Any affection for it is immediately dismissed by a run in the upgraded engine. The extra horsepower gives the DMC-12 a much needed spring in its step, and when the throttle is opened, the performance exhaust gives off a proper growl. But any allegiance to this engine is abandoned when the supercharger comes to play.
The faint banshee-like whine of the supercharger is immediately forgiven as it provides enough thrust to instantly pin you to the back of the seat. Acceleration with this engine is brisk enough to make you pause and wonder if you are about to go Back to the Future. The overall effect turns this tail-heavy car into less of a Volkswagen, and more like a Porsche 911.
Specification, availability, and performance figures are not yet available for the blown engine because it is still in the developmental stage. The remaining hurdle is finding the right mix of boost to provide over 300 horsepower and everyday reliability.
There are no current plans to add cosmetic changes to the outside of the car. Wynn wants to keep that frozen in time. If you didn’t like the look of De Lorean when it was new, this isn’t your car. But if you grew up with a poster of a DMC-12 on your wall, even after your mates told you how pathetic it was, then it’s time for you to import some sweet revenge.
This is a true retromobile. It looks like the same car from the 80s, but since it’s now actually is a performance car, you won’t feel like a goon driving one. Well, as long as you’ve thrown out your Member’s Only jacket.