Great Scott! There’s A Garage In Ontario That Specialises In DeLoreans
Let’s immediately address the elephant in the room: Justin Sookraj, owner of the DeLorean-focused Wells Auto Sales and Restoration facility in Milton, Ontario is not a diehard Back to the Future fan.
“I’d say 80, maybe 90 percent of my clientele are big fans of Back to the Future, and like myself, probably didn’t realize the DeLorean was a real car outside of the movie until they saw one,” Justin explains with a grin. “But I think those who appreciate the DeLorean the most are those who want one, not because it was in the movie but because it was a real car.
“I like the movie, it is a good movie, but it’s completely separate from my business. We sell bespoke, collector vehicles that have a very unique past. Some people look for movie props, and I’m very happy to point them in the right direction. But it ain’t here.”
I know, I know, Great Scott, this is heavy, etc. Ironically, the amount of movie memorabilia in the Wells Auto showroom hardly backs this statement up. Many are gifts from his clients, he later explains, but atop an overly sized Samsung TV-516 to my left for example lies a VHS copy of BTTF, complete with an understandably weathered cardboard sleeve. In the glass display case behind me, there’s a replica rainbow cap ‘as worn’ by Marty McFly Junior, a Playmobil collectible with bomber vest and skateboard, and, naturally, a 1:18 scale diecast model of the titular time machine. Framed on the wall beside it are copies of USA Today ‘Hill Valley Edition’ from 2015 with gang leader Griff Tannen front and center, and while I haven’t rifled through the papers directly below that, I wouldn’t be too surprised to find some mirrored aviators and a Best of Huey Lewis cassette tape.
On the wall directly behind Justin’s desk meanwhile is a 24 x 36 glossy celebrating 25 years since the seminal movie’s release. Hanging next to that is a picture of Michael J. Fox and the original Jennifer Parker, one kindly inscribed thusly by Claudia Wells herself: “thank you so much for naming your DeLorean shop after me!” Unfortunately, ‘Wells’ actually refers to the street on which the original garage was based in Guelph. But gentleman that is he, Justin didn’t have the heart to correct her.
He’s also no fool and is all too aware and grateful for the impact one of the most influential movie trilogies of all time has had on his business. His true love though is the DeLorean DMC-12 itself, hence his decision to take over his uncle’s garage five years ago to create something truly bespoke. Albeit one even he hadn’t anticipated.
“My uncle had a small dealership in Guelph and was considering retirement. At the time I was working in corporate marketing for Mercedes-Benz” – a signed plaque from Mercedes’ ‘Kundendienst’ is also in the showroom’s glass display case – “so it was certainly far from my goal. But I thought if I can take all my years of sales and experience and throw it at this project, maybe I could create something special.
“It wasn’t necessarily going to be DeLorean-only but I wanted Wells to be a specialty business: on one side, the bread and butter where we’d essentially flip Civics and Corollas; on the other, classics and collector models, something that would keep the car lovers coming in.
“Of course, the minute my friends in the Official DeLorean Owners of Canada found out I had a shop, they kept asking, ‘when can I drop the car off?’ Those requests kept on coming in, one DeLorean led to two, two led to three, and within a year, we’d outgrown the space in Guelph. That’s when I found this place – it was the cheapest thing on the market and the most expensive thing I could afford! – and I decided that Wells would go full specialty. It was next level crazy, but it needed to be done.”
Said ‘crazy’ – sorry, ‘commitment’ – is enshrined not just by the beaming smile on Justin’s face as he says this but by the meticulous DMC-12 on display in the Wells Auto showroom mere inches from us, the well-thumbed biographies of John DeLorean also in the display case, and the paintings on the walls that focus almost entirely on Giorgetto Giugiaro’s famous stainless steel bodywork. Justin even shows me his limited edition, Dunk 6.0 DeLorean silver sneakers produced by Nike in 2010, two pairs of which he owns, neither of which feature power laces.
“If there’s a reason I do all this it’s because the cars need to be saved and restored properly. They require a level of care that many haven’t been getting for many, many years. You really need to love a DeLorean to restore it properly. If you don’t and just treat it like any other car, you’re likely going to ruin it.”
As photographer Ryan and I pull back the curtain (quite literally) and step into the workshop behind the showroom, the enormity of meticulously restoring old DeLoreans takes shape. Almost immediately we’re shuffling past transmission cases, Interstate battery packs and a couple of reupholstered leather seats placed strategically next to a DMC-12 sans its mirrors, door handles, bumpers and rear louvers, one clearly in the very early stages of restoration. I peak through what should be the driver’s tollbooth window to find the stripped-out cabin holds half a dozen boxes from one of the DeLorean Motor Company’s official franchises in the USA. All stock and all period-specific, exemplified by the fixed-mast antenna arcing out of the right front fender: Justin’s no fan, “but the car’s had one since new, so it will be keeping it.”
As we move further into the garage towards another example receiving mild suspension tweaks on the lift, a slightly nervous Justin, still smiling, politely asks us to be careful walking past the panel leaning against the wall. It’s one of only 1,800 or so examples that features the bonnet-mounted fuel cap before DeLorean overhauled the design in early 1981 (“they found that the bonnet would dent during stamping around the door”). The door of the next DMC-12 has been arced open to reveal a pristine interior, though work still needs to be done to the 2,849cc Renault V6 peaking out the back. And before you ask, yes, 130hp is more than enough power…
“In my experience, most people who say that the DeLorean is underpowered have never been in one! I’ve yet to take one person out in my car that says, ‘huh, this is slow’. Not one. The absolute worst we’ve had is a couple of ‘it’s not that bad’.
“But remember, this is not a performance car. It’s a 130hp grand tourer, and it weighs around 2,712lb [1,230kg, give or take], which is about the same power-to-weight as an Acura Integra. With mild head work and some exhaust tweaks, we could free up the breathing of the vehicle – we’ve done that for a few customers – and that would probably give you 170hp. But the heads on this V6 were originally designed for fuel economy.”
This truly is the tip of the iceberg. Moments later, Justin unlocks the unit next door to reveal close to a dozen DMC-12s parked bumper-to-bumper, some in finer shape than others. “I just rescued that one,” Justin motions with a pained expression on his face to a wretch in the corner boasting heavily chipped gold alloys, an outlandish exhaust inlet, and a garish mural where once there was a black engine cover (who even are Korpse?). The custom fiberglass dash is now gone, as are the 34 LED screens – yes, really – the previous “savage” had festooned the cabin and exterior with.
Yes, this is a passion, but Wells Auto is a job Justin takes incredibly seriously. After all, he’s not just a business owner and restoration specialist. He’s also a DeLorean owner and has been off and on since he was 17.
“I saw my first real one when I was about 9 years old, and that was it. I was obsessed and had to have one! So I bought my first DeLorean when I was 17, which lasted a very short period of time because the electrics were fried, the head gaskets were gone, and it was basically built on rust. Within a week it had gone back to the dealership. But I promised myself, and later my wife, that before I turned 30, I would have a DeLorean again: I even tried to sneak one into our wedding!
“Then the head of the owners’ group introduced me to a guy pretty much round the corner from me, and we just hit it off. We spent three full nights on his driveway shooting the sh*t about cars, and on the fourth night, he said, ‘I think you’re the person I’ve been looking to sell this car to.’” It’s the model Justin still owns today.
Unsurprisingly, in both his years at the helm of Wells Auto and his weeks as a 17-year-old DMC owner, Justin has seen pretty much every issue a DeLorean can throw up, particularly hydraulics, electrical, head gaskets, the cooling and fuel systems, and – oh boy – the chassis.
“We refurbish quite a few of those! Rust is a big thing, particularly in Canada where the salt we use on the roads during winter is brutal. Unfortunately, a lot of my customers haven’t experienced this first-hand, or are unaware if they have. We had one gentleman in recently, who’d driven his car maybe once in the winter many years ago but had no idea how bad his frame was: we got the car on the lift and there so many holes, it’s a wonder it hadn’t snapped in half.”
Justin makes no attempt to sugarcoat the work involved with owning a classic DeLorean (“there’s quite a lot of parts of this car made of, what I call, un-obtain-ium, so unless you’re an avid collector or someone who’s yearned for a DeLorean for years, this may not be the car for you”). There are, however, some notorious myths about John DeLorean’s famous passion project that Justin is readily keen to debunk…
“We did the Canadian International Auto Show back in February, largely because we discovered that we had the exact same car that had been at the show back in 1983. I mean, how could we not go after that?!
“Anyway, we must have gone through 719 BTTF references per day” – apparently ‘Butthead’ was a popular call – “and even more misconceptions about the DeLorean: ‘it’s heavy’; ‘it’s impractical’; ‘it drives badly’; ‘they fall apart’; ‘they catch fire’; ‘they’re slow.’ Compared with what? The DeLorean finished mid-pack in a group test Car & Driver ran back in 1981, so I guess you’re going to complain about the Datsun 280-ZX and the Ferrari 308 GTS too? Also… well, let’s just say that if there was cocaine in the glove box, we’d all be making a lot more money!”
It’s only as our chat delves into Colin Chapman, The Framing of John DeLorean – “that’s a great movie, you should check it out” – and the set of traffic lights bizarrely mounted on the far wall – “what, no clock tower…?” – that the surrealism of all this hits me. This morning, I’d been dying to ask Justin Sookraj why he chose to dedicate an entire business to such a niche product. Why take the risk? Now, we’re elbow-deep in one of the most maligned yet fascinating sports cars in American history, and it somehow feels…normal.
It suddenly makes perfect sense. Years ago, Wells Auto could easily have been ‘just another second-hand car dealership’. Now, as Canada’s only DeLorean-focused restoration center boasting a growing customer base, it’s an absolute dream.
“I get this a lot: ‘Justin, what are you going to do when you’ve fixed all the DeLoreans in Canada?’ Pretty sure they’re going to break again, and that’s not down to something we’ve done. These are old cars, and they will continue to break in new and fascinating ways.
“I’ll put it this way: if someone did say, ‘Justin, all the DeLoreans in Canada are fixed’, you won’t find me fixing brake discs on Hyundais.”
*Images courtesy of Ryan Carter