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John Z. DeLorean Thought He Was Designing the Car of the Future

Instead its almost-instantly out-of-date styling made it a legend

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smithsonian.com

The DeLorean has become an easily recognizable symbol of 1980s futurism thanks to its use in the Back to the Future movies.

Its inventor and namesake, John Z. DeLorean had a dream to create something totally new in the competitive world of car design. This is his story:

General Motors

Before he started his own company, DeLorean had spent his entire career in cars, History.com writes. Born and raised in Detroit, he started working for Chrysler while in college before going on to work as an engineer for General Motors.

While at General Motors, he’s credited with helping develop a few incredibly popular muscle cars–like the Pontiac Firebird and the GTO, writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. “In the early 1960s he was one of Detroit’s biggest stars,” Trex writes. “As chief engineer at Pontiac, he helped transform the division from a maker of practical, conservative cars into one of Detroit’s leading producers of muscle.”   

The DeLorean

In the 1970s, DeLorean struck out on his own. He “wanted to build a car that was different and would last longer than the usual two or three years,” writes Alex Nishimoto for Motortrend. He eventually managed to establish a factory in northern Ireland and get his car, the DeLorean DMC-12, into production. It wasn’t a simple process, writes Suzanne Snider for Tokion, but by the time the car came out in 1981, things looked okay.

However, the DMC-12 “wasn’t much of a car unless you sprung for the flux capacitor option,” writes Trex. The car was really, really slow–it had a small engine and heavy stainless steel paneling, which was intended to make it rustproof, but mostly just made it bulky and clumsy. But it wasn’t just performance:

The dye from the floor mats would rub off onto drivers’ shoes. The iconic gull-wing doors had a habit of becoming hopelessly stuck. The unpainted stainless steel body looked really cool, but it was nearly impossible to keep clean. In other words, the car wasn’t fun to drive, wasn’t pleasant to ride in, and was almost always dirty. What a combo!

The Downfall

In the end, only about 8,900 were ever made, in the space of less than a year, writes Snider. By 1982, DeLorean was already so desperate to save his failing company that he turned to an unconventional set of "investors:" drug dealers. On this day in 1982, DeLorean was arrested after a videotape emerged that showed him offering undercover DEA agents stock in his company in exchange for being cut in on a coke deal, the New York Daily News reported. DeLorean was ultimately acquitted, but his company was sunk.

By 1985, when Back to the Future was made, the DeLorean was already retro, “so dated it made for a perfect time machine,” writes Snider.

By then, writes Nishimoto, DeLorean, thanks to his legal troubles, had lost control of the company, which had declared bankruptcy and sold off its stock. As for his car, the DeLorean–thanks to the weird styling that made it a movie star–is now one of the world’s most recognizable cars. With millions of parts that were sold off in the bankruptcy still around, Nishimoto writes, “you can expect to still see them on the road for the foreseeable future."

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