It’s a blazing hot summer’s day here in Cape Town and I am wearing stonewashed jeans, white sneakers and a denim jacket. Perched upon my nose is a pair of Wayfarers: I look and feel like some refugee that the decade of greed and 8-bit excess left behind. Which, walking through the current hipster capital of South Africa, is making me feel somewhat self-conscious. Yeah, I can hear those skinny-trousered, artisanal-beer-drinking types sniggering from behind the handlebars of their fixed-gear bicycles. Fortunately there’s method to my madness. You see, I am sporting these old-school threads because I’ve got a date with a 1980s icon: a DeLorean DMC-12. So it is only fitting, and respectful I think, to don the prerequisite attire. But before we get acquainted, some history.
Although only around 9200 were built between 1981 and 1982, the DeLorean is one of the most famous cars ever made. Not because it was an especially great automobile — far from it — but because it starred in the much-loved Back to the Future film franchise, dreamt up and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Retrofitted with a flux capacitor, it was the vehicle Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) used to ride the space-time continuum. As a quirky time machine capable of running on plutonium and/or household trash, the DMC-12 fitted the bill perfectly. It had radical gullwing doors and stainless-steel skin and the kind of straight-edged allure that spoke of the future. Like the good doctor said in the first film: “The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”
But this mobile nugget of pop culture wasn’t all Hollywood glitz and glamour. Beneath that silver-screen veneer lay a past tainted with scandal.
Flip through the history books and you will discover that the DMC-12 was the brainchild of an ex-Detroit bigwig named John Zachary DeLorean. In America during the early 1960s, he revolutionised the automotive game by coming up with the Pontiac GTO: the world’s very first muscle car. Like double-thick cream, he quickly rose to the top, becoming the general manager of Chevrolet before the decade ran out. The pay was good, the lifestyle ritzy. Cutting an unmistakable figure with his 1.9m frame and unruly hair, this self-proclaimed hippy could often be found mingling with celebrities and flirting with beautiful women. Those in the know described him as a maverick, one of those risk-taking free-thinkers born to forever grind against the corporate grain.
And grind he did. In the early 1970s, he “fired” General Motors to start the DeLorean Motor Company. The man’s plan was to build an ethical sports car that would be safe, durable and relatively affordable. What eventually transpired was the DMC-12. It was engineered by Lotus and styled by Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Adding to this most cosmopolitan of cocktails was the fact that it would be built in poverty-stricken Northern Ireland. To many, this idea seemed ridiculously ambitious.
But armed with a combination of privately sourced funding and a massive British-government grant ($120-million), the first car rolled off the Dunmurry production line in 1981. And not soon afterwards, it went tits up in glorious fashion. Quality-control issues. Allegations of embellishment. Decline in sales demand. A sudden financial recession. All of these factors led to massive cash-flow difficulties — the likes of which the ill-fated company would never recover. The final nail in the DMC coffin came when DeLorean, in a desperate last-ditch attempt to make things right, got caught by the FBI in a sting operation. He was arrested for conspiracy to distribute more than $24-million worth of cocaine. Game over.
Of course, today, 32 years after the fact, this twisted tale of woe simply adds much to the DeLorean’s allure. You see, the DMC-12 isn’t just a car. It’s a piece of industrial infamy. One that looks especially fetching under a Cape Town sun. I’ve eyeballed many automobiles in my time but nothing comes close to this machine’s stainless-steel majesty. It glints like some alien space-fish plucked from the nefarious oceans of Planet Zork. “The surface has a tendency to show fingerprints,” says owner Sam Baines. “I keep them at bay by coating the car with a layer of baby oil.” Kinky.
Although the exterior of the DMC-12 may be something to marvel at, the interior certainly isn’t. It is grey. It is cramped. It is assembled with an attention to detail that makes a Tata look like a BMW. It is equipped with a leather steering wheel that not only digs into your inner thighs but also obstructs every last one of the six small analogue dials set in the letterbox instrument cluster. 88mph? You’d never be able to tell. At least the air-conditioning works, which is welcome on a day like today, when I’ve got a mixture of denim and plaid stuck to my sweat-soaked back.
Anyway, after some haggling (and promising not to teleport myself back to 1955), Baines lets me into the driver’s seat. DeLorean designed the DMC-12 to be a sports car: a swift bit of dream metal that could give a Porsche or Corvette a run for its money. And yet, it was paired to an engine that could never do this vision any justice. The Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6 may be simple to maintain but it feels coarse and languid. It was also partnered to a gearbox with some unusually long ratios. I’ve driven beige-blooded rep-mobiles that are quicker than this. Fortunately, there’s more to life than speed. Hitting some of Cape Town’s curvier asphalt proves that the DMC-12 does have some hidden talents. One, it’s a fairly good steer thanks to all that Lotus engineering. Two, it rides with a surprising degree of comfort. And three, what with that tall gearing, it cruises along at highway speeds in a very relaxed manner. In fact, come to think of it, the DeLorean is a pretty good Gran Turismo: a chilled-out tourer in which playboys can waft between establishments of leisure.
But the greatest thing about this doomed creation, the pièce de résistance, is its incredible extroversion. Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG? Ferrari 458 Italia? McLaren 12C? Please, none of these modern supercars can hold a candle to the stainless-steel oddity that is the DeLorean — let alone match its street appeal. Whereas many people will brand you a douchebag for piloting that aforementioned Ferrari, nobody will judge you for turning up in a DMC-12. They’ll be intrigued. Wonder at its quizzically flat silhouette and louvred rear window. And then, after flashing you a big double thumbs-up, they’ll whip out their camera-phones and click away feverishly. Yes, even with a wannabe Marty McFly such as myself contorted behind the steering wheel. – Thomas Falkiner