Featured: Driven By Design: DeLorean DMC-12

Driven By Design: DeLorean DMC-12

By Forest Casey
January 14, 2015

(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)

Photography by Forest Casey & Jeremy Heslup

“Wedge styling” is more-or-less self-explanatory; merely the mention of the term brings to mind images of periscopico Lamborghinis, Stratos Zero Lancias, and Boomerang Maseratis. Arrowhead-shaped cars, so pointed in their execution that any modern designer attempting to copy them would end up entangled in a web of pedestrian safety regulations. The wedge trend wasn’t popular long after the ’70s: Like the shark fin it was said to mimic, wedge styling surfaced, peaked, and slid beneath the waves again in under a decade.

But there was a last straggler, one lone instance of wedge styling that broke free of the ’70s: The DeLorean DMC-12. The 1981 DeLorean was, according to one 2006 longform article, “…retro by 1983. By 1985, the DeLorean was a joke in Back to the Future, so dated it made for a perfect time machine.”

If only the DMC-12 could have traveled back to the 1968 Paris Motor Show, where the Alfa Romeo Carabo debuted to great fanfare. Classifying wedge-shaped cars as derivative of one another is about as impactful as saying that the Farnsworth House copies the golden ratio: It may be factually true, but as a descriptor, it’s functionally useless.

The Bertone-built Carabo, however, is more than just another wedge car—it is the common ancestor from which nearly all ‘70s sports cars have descended. Notice the louvered rear windows, a nod to the rear design from Bertone’s other ‘70s supercar, the Lamborghini Miura. The Carabo’s scissor doors would influence a generation of designers, and would first appear on a production car, the Lamborghini Countach, six years later. The chief designer of all three cars? Marcello Gandini.

But Gandini didn’t own exclusive rights to angularity. If the wedge was the form of the future, Pininfarina and ItalDesign wanted to shape it. The Pininfarina-penned Ferrari Modulo followed in 1970, with the Maserati Boomerang and Lotus Esprit M70 concepts debuting in Turin two years later. The latter concepts were both the work of one man, Giorgetto Giugiaro, who founded the company that would become ItalDesign in 1968 after his two-year stint at Ghia.

Giugiaro wasted little time after founding ItalDesign, creating three concept cars in quick succession, culminating in a fourth “research prototype” in 1970. The car would be known as the Tapiro, named after the slant-snouted herbivore found in the jungles of South and Central America. The design brief of the Tapiro was to create a functional, production-ready prototype for a joint venture between VW and Porsche. Growing weary of seeing the endless parade of his prototypes pass through motor shows without ever being produced, Giugiaro wanted to give the Tapiro the best possible chance of production, so it was constructed around an existing chassis: a stretched version of the 914/6 platform.

The Tapiro sported not one, but two pairs of gullwing doors—one set for the occupants, the other for their luggage. Both doors attach to a central tunnel, which forms the spine of the car and also delivers HVAC ventilation to its passengers via an air intake inset in the front windshield. Viewed through a modern lens, the Tapiro and other wedge-shaped cars can appear hopelessly impractical, but it is important to remember that their low, triangular shapes were designed in-period for function as well as form.

This was an era before flame surfacing, when a car’s body panels couldn’t suggest complexity by themselves, but instead dictated it directly in their summation. For what form could be more elemental than the inclined plane; the shape itself is a simple machine. Sadly, neither Porsche nor VW felt building the Tapiro would be so simple, so the show car was sold off to a wealthy Spanish industrialist, and the design languished on Giugiaro’s desk until 1974.

That year, John DeLorean, the maverick American automotive executive, left the stifling corporate culture at General Motors to produce what he termed “ethical sports cars.”

DeLorean’s car was a rolling indictment of the staid badge-engineering pervasive across the Big Three during the malaise era—its bonded-resin construction saved weight over a comparable all-steel car, its unpainted panels promised further weight savings and a lifetime of easy maintenance. From the beginning, DeLorean wanted his sports car to have gullwing doors. The only thing missing was a designer.

In the winter of 1974, DeLorean and Bill Collins (another ex-GM engineer) flew to the Turin Motor Show to find one. The wedge era was still officially in full swing, and the two visiting Americans were granted audience with the four masters: Pininfarina, Bertone, Michelotti, and Giugiaro. As often happens during the design phase, the winning bid came down to feasibility…and price: ItalDesign’s formal quotation for the work was amenable to DeLorean partly because Giugiaro started with a production-ready concept: The Tapiro.

Moreover, Giugiaro showed flexibility with his old concept. When Collins requested a particular ground clearance, Giugiaro provided it. When DeLorean and Collins requested fixed headlights instead of then-trendy pop-up lights, Giugiaro complied again. The only point of contention between the Italian designer and his American patrons was over safety regulations: The new-for-1975 edicts for 10 m.p.h. bumpers and knee restraints.

There was also the lingering problem of visibility…or lack of. According to Collins, “The first rendering of the car had completely blind quarters, and my instincts told me I wouldn’t be able to see out of that area.” The extended flying buttresses, lifted from the Maserati Boomerang concept, were ditched for more-practical rear windows. Upon Collins’ suggestion, the mandatory knee restraints were integrated into the door armrests, reminiscent of the Lancia Scorpion. When Giugiaro shipped the first styling model to DeLorean’s headquarters in July of 1975, he must have been filled with a sense of pride, having produced the rarest of rare sports car concepts—one of the few actually destined for production.

The biggest problem with the design had nothing to do with Giugiaro, instead it was the nearly six years it took DeLorean to secure an engine for, finance, and (finally) produce his car.

Along the way, DeLorean was lauded and lambasted, granted extraordinary sums of money from the British government to build a plant in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, and then accused of fraud once that factory failed to deliver.

Despite DeLorean’s disputes with law enforcement on both sides of the Atlantic, his car remains relatively well-loved in Northern Ireland.

It’s difficult to see the DMC-12 through the same lens now as it must have appeared then: a beacon of hope in a deeply divided nation.

Its Dunmurry factory featured two doors—one facing a nearby Protestant community, the other pointed towards the Catholic side of town. Building the DeLorean would unite 2,600 Protestants and Catholics in common task.

The DeLorean also gave a true artist, Giorgetto Giugiaro, the opportunity to see one of his fantastic creations on the road. Though John Z. DeLorean’s legacy is uneven, his car will forever stand as a challenge to the status quo, a last attempt to define the angular future that would never arrive.

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2 years ago

Looking at those old comments, I must say that I disagree with almost all of them that bash the DeLorean! How could “any” car guy or gal not love this car? Sure, it has its faults, but what person doesn’t? The engineering is definitely creative for the time….many of the prior commenters probably were too young or not among us yet to remember the absolute crap the US was building in Detroit back then, and well into the 80’s! I’d say we didn’t see daylight until well into the ’90’s where designers figured out how to be creative again and put performance back into sports cars! The DeLorean in European trim sits lower and has about 30 more horsepower and without the 85 mph speedometer! So, let’s please put things into perspective ok? Panel fit isn’t the best, but when manufacturing a totally new design concept I’d expect some irregularities wouldn’t you? Besides computerization wasn’t really on the horizon back then. I remember seeing new DeLoreans sitting out on the front lawn of the local Pontiac/Buick/Olds (and DeLorean) dealer in Florida back in 1981. I loved the things, but they were pricey for the era. It doesn’t take being a rocket scientist to figure out that timing is everything sometimes, and in the early-mid 80’s the economy went haywire! After you own one for awhile, then you might have the right to bash the car, but there are probably more car enthusiasts that absolutely love the DeLorean! As for JZD?…I respect him for what he accomplished in his career when it came to cars! I was 14 when I saw my first 1964 GTO drive past my house…and I think my mouth stayed open until it drove out of sight! That car changed everything! Then the man went on to other things, and years later the DeLorean was actually manufactured under probably some of the worst conditions anyone could endure, regardless of who we are talking about. So, say what you will but DeLorean did accomplish much in his lifetime, and I can respect that every time I look at the GTO or the DeLorean. Oh, I rode in a Bricklin, and there’s no comparison! I was a fan of the DeLorean long before BTTF!

Paul Ipolito
Paul Ipolito(@vetteapologist)
6 years ago

I prefer a 1975 Bricklin.

Scott Allen
Scott Allen(@scottallen)
6 years ago

in the 80s, one of my first jobs out of design school was making a DeLorean time machine for Universal Studios with 3 other guys.
A remarkable experience. Even then, we knew we were making something that would last a long time.
I worked on the dash, the gauge cluster, the interior, the rear thrusters and mr fusion. I think a co-worker made a flux capacitor…maybe it was my boss. I spent some time on the Universal lot…in the center of town, the clock tower and the sounds stages. Somewhere I have photos of me sitting in the car models.
The idea to make a time machine out of a car was brilliant, the idea to use an infamous DMC was beyond.
People loved to hate DeLorean in the 80s. The BTTF movies preserved the DeLorean from all forgotten history, and raising it to one of the most popular known cars to span generations. Few movie cars have a place in the heart of so many, especially in the memory of non-car people. They say nobody could have replaced Michael J Fox…I don’t think anyone could have replaced Doc Brown….and I can’t think of a single car that could have replaced the DeLorean.

6 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allen

On behalf of my childhood, I thank you for your fine work, sir. If you find those photos, be sure to post them up please!

Jeremy DeConcini
Jeremy DeConcini(@ymeabay)
6 years ago
Reply to  Thistlebeeace

Great work, I thank you as well!

Pedro Magnifico
Pedro Magnifico(@pedromagnifico)
6 years ago

I would argue that no article about the De Lorean is complete without mentioning how woefully under-engineered it is. One look at the suspension and brakes would dissuade any sensible observer from considering it a sports car.

At the shop I trust with my car, there is a customer with a De Lorean. The mechanics there have no admiration for the way that car was built.

Ae Neuman
Ae Neuman(@fb_1293493178)
6 years ago

a great car as long as you don’t drive it !

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago
Reply to  Ae Neuman

Amen to both of you …

The looks … were stunning … modernist .. almost timeless .. and an absolute treat for the eyes

The mechanicals , engineering , quality of workmanship and materials .. not to mention the customer service though were an absolute abysmal nightmare worthy of a Steven King script . Fact is … stories of DeLorean ownership are the very epitome of the adage … ” Truth is Stranger than Fiction ” … what with entire drive trains falling out of the cars when parked … gullwing doors taking flight mid drive .. body panels going their own way in the slightest of breezes .. entire dash assemblies falling into your lap etc etc .. et al … ad nauseam .

Fact is the only thing worse than the cars mechanicals etc was the man John Z DeLorean himself . A blatant substance addled con artist extraordinaire as well as the still reigning king of the Automotive Business World Grifters … though John Z’s crown is currently under threat on several counts by a certain muskrat fellow and his efforts to separate the consumer/investor from his/her money . Only time will tell who’ll come out on top in the end … though I have my guess who it’ll be when all is finally … ahh … errr …. revealed .. hint hint … 😉

Adam Richardson
Adam Richardson(@massmadesoul)
6 years ago

Thanks for writing a serious article about the DeLorean that doesn’t just focus on turning it into a time machine, and that puts it into a historical perspective. It’s not one of the more extreme wedge shapes (compared to say my boyhood fave of the Lotus Esprit) but it’s pretty handsome. Though I wish they’d stuck with the pop-up lights, the front grille has always screamed mid-70’s GM to me.

Is the gold one the one at Peterson Museum? If I recall the story from the tour it was a limited edition plated version for a credit card give-away (American Express? Or Visa Gold? Don’t remember exactly). Turned out it was even harder to care for than the plain stainless and impossible to repair so nobody ever drove them…

By the way, you may be interested in a photo essay I recently did about a wedge product from this same era, also designed by an Italian – Mario Bellini – the Yamaha TC 800 cassette deck. http://www.massmadesoul.com/yamaha-tc800

Rose Jericho
Rose Jericho(@fb_100003923664768)
6 years ago

I have same Yamaha TC 800 deck for sale

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
6 years ago

… I remember that deck well .