Featured: Driven By Design: DeLorean DMC-12

Driven By Design: DeLorean DMC-12

Avatar By Forest Casey
January 14, 2015
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(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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02fanaticJeremy DeConciniThistlebeeacePaul IpolitoScott Allen Recent comment authors
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02fanatic
02fanatic

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… Read more »

Paul Ipolito
Paul Ipolito

I prefer a 1975 Bricklin.

Scott Allen
Scott Allen

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.… Read more »

Thistlebeeace
Thistlebeeace

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

Great work, I thank you as well!

Pedro Magnifico
Pedro Magnifico

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

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

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

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… Read more »

Adam Richardson
Adam Richardson

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… Read more »

Rose Jericho
Rose Jericho

I have same Yamaha TC 800 deck for sale

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

… I remember that deck well .