If you know me, either personally or by virtue of my columns in Street Muscle Magazine, then you undoubtedly realize I have two abiding loves in this world: cars and movies. Both interests, in fact, have utterly consumed me since I was a kid.
It should be of no surprise to you then to learn that when these two worlds intersect, I am literally in a high state of rapture.
Like many, I especially enjoy the iconic cars of cinema – The 1968 Ford Mustang GT from Bullitt, the Pontiac Trans Ams from the Smokey and the Bandit films, Vanishing Point’s 1970 Dodge Challenger, the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger – and revisit those films, again and again, to take in the automotive action.
While there are a multitude of cars that became movie stars themselves in the annals of cinema history, I’d venture to say that there is one car that stands above even those aforementioned celluloid classics, and just might be the most recognizable car in the world.
I’m talking about the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future, and in this month’s chapter of Rob’s Movie Muscle, we’re going to have a comprehensive look at this unforgettable Hollywood vehicle.
So strap in, set your destination to a multiplex in 1985, and enjoy the ride!
For those who’ve been asleep or otherwise disconnected from society for the past 35 years, Back to the Future is one of the highest-grossing films of all time, and spawned a franchise that included two sequels, multiple spinoffs, video games, theme park rides, and a massive merchandising market.
The film was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and was distributed by Universal Studios. It combined the talents of some of the most luminous figures in filmmaking, including writer/director Robert Zemeckis, producers Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall, cinematographer Dean Cundey and scorer Alan Silvestri.
Starring, of course, was Michael J. Fox in the lead role of Marty McFly, Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett Brown, Lea Thompson as Lorraine Baines, and Crispin Glover as George McFly.
Seminal to the plot of the film is a time machine built by Doc Brown out of the chassis and body of what was an exemplar of the automotive world, as well as a symbol of the failings of American auto manufacturers at the time: a stainless-steel bodied, rear-engined, gull-wing doored, vastly underpowered supercar known as the DeLorean DMC-12.
The brainchild of former wunderkind automotive executive, John Z. DeLorean, the DMC-12 was his attempt to realize a dream of making the most unique and desirable car in the world.
After leaving his position in 1973 as the youngest division head in GM history, DeLorean created his own eponymous firm, the DeLorean Motor Company. To draft the outfit’s first car, DeLorean hired famed industrial and automotive designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, who would attempt to incorporate DeLorean’s main design goals of style, durability, fuel efficiency, and safety.
Borrowing heavily from an unproduced 1970 concept car that he had penned for Porsche, Giugiaro brought life to DeLorean’s dream. The low-slung shape, stainless-steel body, and gull-wing doors would prove to be a stunning design and provide for a strong, safe car. Furthermore, the mid-engine configuration would yield ideal handling and help to provide the utmost in performance and efficiency.
With Giugiaro’s design in place, DeLorean went ahead and produced a prototype in 1976. The car was a masterpiece and featured groundbreaking attributes such as a fiberglass chassis to enhance rigidity and safety in addition to reducing sprung weight.
In the course of developing the prototype into a production vehicle though, several manufacturing issues led to pronounced changes to the car. While the stainless-steel body and gullwing doors would remain, the fiberglass chassis and mid-engine layout would be lost, replaced by a metal chassis and a rear-engined design that compromised the safety, handling, weight, and performance of the DMC-12.
Having secured a deal to build the car in a plant in Northern Ireland, which would reduce production costs compared to assembling the cars in the U.S., DeLorean had aimed for a price point of $12,000 for his car (which gave it the “12” in its nomenclature.) Unfortunately, production problems and financial setbacks led to the car launching with a rather dear price tag of $29,825 instead.
Owing to all of these changes and failed promises, the DMC-12 was not met with much praise upon its launch in 1981. While the aesthetics were heralded, the car was heavily criticized for its poor handling, its anemic PRV V6 powerplant whose 130 ponies yielded a laconic zero-to-60 time of ten seconds, and endemic quality control issues.
Poor sales, production delays, and a sagging new car market caused by an economic recession led to dwindling interest in the DMC-12. By 1982, half of the DeLoreans produced were unsold, the company was $175M in debt, and the factory in Ireland went into receivership. The coup de grâce came when DeLorean was arrested by federal authorities for cocaine trafficking in a scheme to raise money for his failing company. Although ultimately acquitted, the trial took a lot out of the man and expedited DMC’s demise.
Three years later though, the DMC-12 would rise from the ashes like a phoenix with the release of Back to the Future.
In early drafts of the screenplay, Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale had Marty and Doc Brown traveling back in time in a refrigerator. Although a funny visual gag, they later decided that the central prop in the film ought to be a bit more dynamic than an insulated box.
Once they arrived upon a car as the means to send the characters back to the mid-fifties, the DMC-12 became an obvious choice. It added graphic flair and provided a good laugh for the audience, which was, at the time of the film’s release, all too familiar with the DeLorean’s failure. What’s more, it prompted the film’s most iconic line when Marty incredulously says to Doc Brown, “Are you telling me you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?!”
The aesthetics of the DeLorean time machine fell under the auspices of production designer Lawrence Paull, who along with production illustrator Andrew Probert and consultant Ron Cobb decided the design should look homemade from scrapyard parts.
Art department liaison, Michael Fink, oversaw the transition of the vehicle from sketches to reality. He determined that three vehicles would be necessary to facilitate filming, and the production promptly procured them from a DeLorean collector.
The “A” car was the primary picture car, used for all static “beauty” shots of the vehicle, and was outfitted with the most detailed modifications. The “B,” or stunt car, was reinforced for the rigors of filming, and the “C” car had special cutaways to enable lighting and camera equipment to be moved in and around the car’s interior for shooting inside.
The exteriors of the DeLoreans were adorned with a multitude of parts, including electrical boxes and various and sundry hydraulic tubes and wiring harnesses. The rear of the car received the most mods, with two huge, square vent boxes, reminiscent of rocket nozzle exhausts, dominating the posterior. A “plutonium chamber” (later replaced by a “Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor” made by the art department from a Krups Coffina coffee grinder) sat where the car’s rear hatch would be.
Inside, the modifications were legion as well.
The main addition was the “flux capacitor,” a box-shaped metal compartment with a glass window, located between and behind the front seats. In dialogue, Doc informs Marty that it is what makes time travel possible, and as the car accelerates, bright pulsing light emits from the unit’s window.
Mounted on the dashboard are the car’s “time circuits.” Consisting of a keypad input device and LED numerical displays showing the destination time, present time, and last time departed, the time circuits are allegedly responsible for controlling the DeLorean’s travels through the years.
The dash is also festooned with a variety of compasses, radios, alarm clocks, power meters, and a digital speedometer. The latter, as all Back to the Future fans know, had to read 88 mph (decided randomly by the filmmakers because they liked the way the numerals looked on screen) before temporal travel could be triggered.
Owing to this arbitrary decision by the filmmakers, a slight issue was created, necessitating that the art department make a modification to the cars’ factory speedometers in the gauge clusters.
In the late 1970s, the federal government created a fairly silly mandate that all cars sold in America must have speedometers that topped out at 85 mph, with the idea that this would discourage speeding and help conserve gas. This obviously created a problem in a car that had to exceed that speed to travel time, so the art department applied an overlay to the speedo that showed a top speed of 95 mph.
While today, movie props are treated with reverence and often end up in the hands of well-heeled collectors or even museums, such was not the case back in the 1980s.
The “C” car, used for interior shooting, was put into storage at Universal Studios, and over time began to deteriorate. Thankfully, before the car was lost to time (pun intended) parts of it were used to dress up a DeLorean that was displayed at Universal Studios Japan.
The “B” car, the stunt vehicle, had the hardest life of the three. After surviving the filming of the first movie, it was completely destroyed while making the sequel. Parts from it were salvaged and used to build other DeLoreans for promotional purposes. Years later, the body panels of “B” would be reassembled and hung upside down from the ceiling of Planet Hollywood Hawaii.
The “A” car survived filming and for a while became an attraction at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Studio City, California, where tens of thousands of tourists got to touch and sit in the car. Over time, this human traffic helped the car to fall into disrepair as components wore and were stolen as souvenirs.
Thankfully, in 2012 a team of cinemaphiles, led by Back to the Future co-writer, Bob Gale, funded and executed a ground-up, nut and bolt restoration of the “A” car. It now resides in a permanent exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, where it receives the care and devotion it rightfully deserves.
Additionally, the car became just the 29th vehicle to be added to the United States Department of the Interior’s National Historic Vehicle Register, recognizing and documenting its historical significance.
Not bad for one of the automotive world’s most infamous failures.